Councilman calls for smoking ban in new affordable housing

Donovan Richards. (William Alatriste/NYC Council)
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Councilman Donovan Richards, who chairs the Council's environmental protection committee, is proposing a new ban on smoking inside the 200,000 units of affordable housing that Mayor Bill de Blasio plans to build and preserve throughout the city.

“The only way to protect nonsmokers from exposure to the toxins found in cigarettes within the confines of their homes is to create entirely smoke-free housing,” Richards wrote in an as-yet unpublished op-ed, a copy of which was provided to Capital.

“Considering the correlation between poor health and exposure to cigarette smoke, I strongly urge the de Blasio administration as they study ways to meet their affordable housing goal, to require that all 200,000 of the newly created or preserved housing units be smoke free,” Richards wrote.

Richards weaves his proposal into the “Tale of Two Cities” narrative that de Blasio rode to election as mayor. He said children and low-income residents are not only at an economic disadvantage, but at a health disadvantage as well.

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“Children exposed to the toxins found in cigarette smoke face further detriment to their quality of life,” Richards wrote. “They are more likely to develop ear and respiratory infections along with asthma-like symptoms that can have wider impacts on their ability to lead healthy and fulfilling lives.”

“Bridging the chasm between 'two cities' and addressing growing inequity must include an honest and open discussion on disparities in housing, health and standards of living,” he said.

There are currently a few buildings in the city's affordable housing market that are smoke-free, including the Arbor House in the Bronx and Utica Place in Brooklyn. Richards' bill would expand that footprint significantly.

While there is near-universal agreement that second- and third-hand smoke is detrimental to health, there is some debate on how, or whether, the government should protect against it.

Cigarettes are already banned in restaurants, public buildings and public parks in the city. 

“You're taking advantage of their position because they can't afford a private house so they can't smoke,” said Audrey Silk, founder of New York City Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment (NYC CLASH). “You help them so you can control them. We're going to make them our wards so we can control their lives.”

Richards, in a phone interview, said the right to clean air was just as valid as the right to smoke.

“Our children have the right to breathe clean air. Our elders have the right to breathe clean air,” he said pointing out that 2,200 people in New York City die each year due to air-quality-related illness. “It's incumbent on us to bring this number down.”

Silk also voiced perhaps one of the biggest questions being raised about the ban.

Asked how the measure would be enforced, Richards said those details are currently being hashed out in legislation, but that the law should not punish people already struggling to pay their bills.

“I don't want this to be something that we fine our way out of,” he said. “Just to have the conversation of changing behavior is critical. … We don't want poor people to be ticketed, but we have to get New Yorkers thinking that way.”