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Housing authority in Merced County adopts smoke-free policy

Atwater resident Maria Castillo, 72, sits outside her residence at the Sierra Vista Gardens senior complex in Atwater on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2015. The Merced County Housing Authority has adopted a smoke-free policy which prohibits smoking indoors and outside, including common areas and resident units for all public housing. Castillo is a supporter of the new policy.
Atwater resident Maria Castillo, 72, sits outside her residence at the Sierra Vista Gardens senior complex in Atwater on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2015. The Merced County Housing Authority has adopted a smoke-free policy which prohibits smoking indoors and outside, including common areas and resident units for all public housing. Castillo is a supporter of the new policy. akuhn@mercedsunstar.com

Tobacco smoking in Merced County public housing will be snuffed out next year.

The Merced County Housing Authority recently adopted a smoke-free policy banning smoking indoors and in outdoor common areas on its properties.

The rule will go into effect Jan. 1 for all current residents, but has been in effect, as of Sept. 1, for new and transfer tenants, according to Housing Authority officials.

Maria Alvarado, executive assistant at the Merced County Housing Authority, said the smoke-free policy will affect 421 housing units. The agency operates low-income housing programs in Merced, Atwater, Livingston, Los Banos and South Dos Palos.

According to officials, the new policy comes as an effort to protect the health of tenants by reducing exposure to secondhand smoke – a topic that’s been gaining attention for more than 10 years.

The implementation of smoke-free housing, Alvarado explained, is up to the housing authority in each county. But many counties and cities in California, she said, have been moving toward smoke-free zones. Housing authorities in Kern and San Bernardino counties, for example, also have smoke-free policies in place.

The Merced County Housing Authority is working on distributing notices to its tenants alerting them to the changes. It is still unclear what the consequences would be for smokers who break the new rule.

“We haven’t heard any (complaints) yet,” Alvarado said. “But we’re assuming there will be some.”

Maria Castillo, 73, lives at Sierra Vista Gardens, a senior complex in Atwater operated by the Merced County Housing Authority. She said that as of Tuesday she had not received any notice about the new smoke-free policy, but is in favor of the change.

I think it is a good idea, especially for the health of us older people.

Maria Castillo, resident of a senior complex in Atwater

She is not a smoker, but a few of her neighbors are. The smell of cigarette smoke often sneaks into her bedroom, she said. She is also exposed to secondhand smoke when lounging in her porch area, next to her garden.

“I think it is a good idea, especially for the health of us older people,” she said.

Castillo has been living in the Atwater complex for three years, and often is visited by her children and grandchildren.

“This could benefit them, too,” she said.

A 2011 UCLA study showed that smoke-free policies could save landlords and agencies up to $18 million a year in cleaning costs. According to the county’s Housing Authority, banning smoking cuts expenses when preparing a unit for a new resident.

The adoption of the policy is supported by the county’s Department of Public Health. Kathleen Grassi, the department’s director, said the Housing Authority has done the right thing to protect the health of its tenants.

“Secondhand smoke knows no boundaries,” Grassi said in a statement. “It travels under doors and through electrical outlets.

“There is no ventilation system that prevents secondhand smoke exposure from one unit to another,” she added.

In 2014, the American Lung Association in California released a survey of Merced County residents living in multiunit housing to measure the level of support for smoke-free rules. The survey found that 38 percent have experienced secondhand smoke drifting into their units.

Sixty-nine percent supported prohibiting smoking in outdoor common areas of apartments, including near swimming pools, play areas and courtyards. Additionally, 61 percent favored banning smoking inside apartment units, according to the poll.

Ana B. Ibarra: 209-385-2486, @ab_ibarra

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