AHFC should keep smoking out of public housing

Wednesday, August 7, 2013 - 19:00

The Alaska Housing Finance Corp. should resist efforts to derail its new no-smoking policy for public housing units.

The issue generates a blizzard of conflicting claims about rights, freedoms and responsibilities. However, the state has the right to set the new rules and good reason for doing so. It should stick by them.

AHFC is a landlord, and the people who stay in its housing units are tenants. The landlord gets to set the rules, so long as those rules don’t discriminate against certain protected classes of people — smokers not among them.

Few Alaskans would have it any other way. Who could deny the right of a landlord to prohibit smoking by tenants? There is already resentment among some people that the government prohibits landlords from choosing renters based upon marital status, gender or, except under specific arrangements, age. There are even some landlords who believe that they should be able to discriminate based on any criteria they desire, including race, sexual orientation and religion.

Adding smokers to the list of protected classes to whom landlords must rent just wouldn’t fly. In fact, there would be howls of protest about government oppression if the state were to declare that landlords could not bar smoking on their property.

However, this particular dispute obviously does not turn solely upon a landlord’s theoretical authority. Beyond the question of whether AHFC has the right to impose such a rule, there is the much different question of whether it should do so.

AHFC is a state-owned corporation, a public entity, so people correctly believe its policies should be publicly debated. Smokers in these buildings have the right to protest the new policy and offer their best arguments.

This issue also differs from the standard landlord-tenant dispute because the people in public housing units often are dependent upon the state landlord. They usually are elderly or disabled in various ways. They’re in subsidized units because they have found no economical way of housing themselves otherwise.

Despite those circumstances, this is not an argument the smokers should win. Second-hand smoke is unhealthy, and there is no way to stop the smoke from contaminating the buildings or to completely prevent it from entering other areas in apartment buildings.

The increased danger from fire also is serious, as any landlord who has rented to smokers can confirm. Most smokers are extremely careful, but circumstances too often defeat the less cautious. Between the threats to health and safety, the state’s clear best policy is to prohibit smoking.

If moving out of public housing isn’t possible for financial reasons, then residents who smoke must either stop or do so only outside in designated areas. That’s the choice. Yes, it’s hard, perhaps close to impossible, for some people to quit. So they’ll have to smoke outside, and AHFC should make sure safe, accessible areas are available.

It still will be uncomfortable and annoying, but it won’t cancel anyone’s civil rights.


— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

Aug. 4

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