Recently, Hope Community, Inc. announced that it would protect the health of its most vulnerable population by adopting a smoke-free housing policy in the Carlos M. Rios Senior Residence. A nonprofit community development organization, Hope was founded in 1968 by a group of residents dedicated to improving East Harlem. This landmark decision makes Hope the oldest and largest housing organization in East Harlem to go smoke-free. The 102-unit building located at 335 E. 105 St. will be Hope’s pilot smoke-free building.
According to the surgeon general, there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke. Secondhand smoke is a mixture of the smoke from the burning of any tobacco product and the smoke exhaled by a smoker. Both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the International Agency for Research on Cancer classify secondhand smoke as a “known human carcinogen,” and research shows that it is a public health hazard.
The elderly, who often have pre-existing chronic health conditions, are particularly at risk in smoky environments. Secondhand smoke is a trigger for heart attacks and especially asthma. It is also linked to a variety of lung ailments, including lung cancer. According to the Community Health Survey in 2011, approximately 12 percent of, or 33,000, Manhattan residents over the age of 45 reported having an asthma episode. In East Harlem, 15.7 percent of, or 12,000, residents reported having an asthma episode.
In Manhattan, 97.5 percent of homes are in multi-unit buildings (three or more apartments or units), and 70 percent of all New York City homes are in multi-unit housing, the highest proportion in the country. Up to 65 percent of the air in such buildings is shared between units. Studies confirm that secondhand smoke travels between apartments and floors. It is nearly impossible to isolate secondhand smoke within a smoker’s apartment: When one person smokes, the whole building smokes.
After confirming that the senior residence could legally go smoke-free, senior staff at Hope met with the organization I lead, the Manhattan Smoke-Free Partnership (part of the NYC Coalition for a Smoke-Free City), and the East and Central Harlem District Public Health Office to learn more about the health effects of secondhand smoke exposure. The Rios Senior Residence was selected as the pilot because many of its residents are asthmatic and some have oxygen tanks. Smoking while oxygen is in use or nearby poses a fire hazard.
Over 90 percent of Rios’ respondents expressed support for a smoke-free building, and 71 percent noted that they were concerned about the negative health effects of secondhand smoke. Reassured by these findings, Hope announced that they would be transitioning the senior residence into a smoke-free building.
Smoke-free housing is a growing trend in the city and the nation. In addition to the health benefits, smoke-free apartments lower the risk of fire, as smoking is the leading cause of fires in the U.S. In 2009, smoking caused 556 fires in New York City. Moreover, it costs six times more to rehabilitate a smoker’s apartment than a non-smoker’s. More and more property owners, tenants, and developers are choosing to transition occupied buildings or to open new properties as smoke-free.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services encourage public housing authorities and private owners of federally assisted multi-unit housing to adopt smoke-free policies.
We congratulate Hope for taking this bold step to reduce secondhand smoke exposure for seniors in East Harlem and adding this option to their housing portfolio.
The author is a borough manager of the Manhattan Smoke-Free Partnership.