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Mark Hayward's City Matters: Smoke-free living divides apartment tenants

New Hampshire Union

June 12. 2013 8:53PM

SMOKING. Our government and our bosses have banned it from airplanes, restaurants, arenas, workplaces. Next in store: the home.

Twelve days ago, the Carpenter Center — a subsidized housing project in downtown Manchester — went smoke-free. After more than a year of warnings, reworded leases and smoking-cessation programs, the residents of the 96 apartments were told to snuff out the butts in their individual apartments as of June 1.

Some residents remain annoyed. Some are pleased. A few — three according to the on-site manager — moved out.

In the hallways, dining room and park benches outside the Carpenter Center, conversations about smoking have raged for months. Two people who most symbolize the debate are Linda Linton and Conrad St. Germain.

Linton was among a determined handful of residents whose complaints about secondhand smoke found a receptive ear at Stewart Property Management. The apartment-management company took over control of Carpenter Center last year and implemented the ban.

Violators get two written warnings before they are kicked out.

"It's great. It smells differently. You don't mind being here. You can walk the hallways and not smell smoke," Linton said.

On the other extreme is Conrad St. Germain.

Two months ago, he moved out of the Carpenter Center to an unsubsidized apartment on Pearl Street.

He said his rent at Carpenter was $600 a month, which included everything but cable TV. Now the 67-year-old splits a $1,300-a-month apartment with his girlfriend. He also pays half the heat and half the utility bill. All so he can smoke 1-1/2 packs of cigarettes a day in his home.

"It's none of their business what I do," said St. Germain, noting that the recent ban also applies to candles and incense. "Pretty soon, they're going to tell you what kind of toilet paper to use, that you can't use scented toilet paper.

"If people don't like my smoke, move away from me, or tell me and I'll move," he said.

One can't help but admire both Linton and St. Germain.

Linton put her social life at risk at the apartment complex. She acknowledges she's made some enemies.

"That's OK," she said. "It's for their health, and they don't even realize it."

And St. Germain won't be pushed around, even though it costs him money, which he doesn't have a lot of.

"I think smokers have rights. If I can't smoke, the hell with it," said St. Germain, who shows a scar on his belly from surgery he had last December to remove cancer from his liver.

Then there is the chorus of everyone else at Carpenter Center. Some gather at the park bench on Franklin Street across from the 12-story building. Despite the supposed dangers of secondhand smoke, smokers and non-smokers mingle freely on a recent warm day.

Mina Collier brings a portable radio that plays country music. She said smoke only bothered her years ago, when a Carpenter Center chain smoker opened his door and smoke wafted into the hallway. Other than that, she's never been bothered by smoke.

"I'm glad I never smoked in my life," Collier said, while worrying that the next thing to be outlawed will be the couple of beers she enjoys.

Jeanette Boisvert said she quit about three months ago and is happy the smoking ban went into effect.

"It's like having a cup of coffee," she said. "Some people get up and they need a cigarette."

Smokers shrug and say they accept having to venture outside to smoke, although it will be more difficult in the winter.

In April, the Manchester Housing and Redevelopment Authority decided to prohibit smoking in the 1,500 units it owns and manages in Manchester. Executive Director Dick Dunfey had long resisted such a move, but he said the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will inevitably require all public housing to be smoke-free.

"Even though you can view it as an intrusion of privacy in their home, so is smoke," he said. "And there is no way of keeping smoke out of units."

Like Stewart Property, Dunfey said the housing authority will give tenants who violate the no-smoking ban a couple of written warnings before an eviction. Stewart said he initially thought staff would have to police the policy, but residents are happy to turn in violators.

Dunfey stresses that tenants can still smoke, just not in their apartments or on the property.

Housing residents will be able to smoke 25 feet away from entrances. And the Carpenter people have their benches across the street.

However, how long will it be before smoking isn't allowed on the sidewalk benches? The complaint will be about cigarette butt litter, or secondhand smoke hazards for pedestrians, or for the smokers themselves.

As Linton said, "The smokers here are not healthy."

Mark Hayward's City Matters runs Thursdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader and As of late, he has been enjoying a daily cigarette — always outside.

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