Nobody likes a snitch. But Espahbad Dodd doesn’t care.
Unless he speaks up, his neighbors could be the death of him.
“The climate of fear was a surprise to me,” Dodd said last week, surrounded by his fellow informants at 100 State Street, a public housing complex in downtown Portland primarily for folks over the age of 62 and/or with disabilities.
Call them the smoking cops. Or, to be more specific, four brave souls who are tired of secondhand smoke wafting through their hallways and seeping into their apartments in what is – at least according to the signs all over the place – supposed to be a smoke-free facility.
“We call them the ‘sneaky smokers,’ ” said Mark Adelson, executive director of the Portland Housing Authority, which oversees the 170-unit apartment building. “It’s a real management challenge.”
It’s also a sign of the ever-changing times not only for those who still choose to smoke, but also those who are sick and tired of breathing in what smokers breathe out.
Thirty or so years ago, it was nothing to go to a bar or restaurant and see an ashtray on every table. Ask someone to refrain from smoking back then? Who dared do that?
Now, smoking is banned – and rightfully so – in workplaces, concert halls, public transportation, even open-air parks and anywhere else where the right to pollute your own lungs stops at the nose of the nearest passer-by.
But inside your humble abode? If you’re one of the 44 million Americans who still light up, can they really ban you from feeding your nicotine addiction in the privacy of your own home?
You’re darn right they can – particularly if that home is subsidized by the state or federal governments.
Just last week, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration issued guidelines for the state’s 240 housing authorities to ban any and all smoking in state-funded residential units.
Ditto for the city of Houston, which in January imposed a ban on smoking inside – and within 25 feet outside – the city’s public housing facilities.
Closer to home, the Portland Housing Authority nixed smoking in its 1,100 units of subsidized housing back in July of 2011. But as Executive Director Adelson readily admits, prohibition is one thing; effective enforcement – up to and including eviction – is quite another.
“The judges want to know, ‘How serious is this matter? Were you really caught? And what’s the evidence that you really posed this violation? Who saw you smoking? And how many times did they see you smoking?’ ” Adelson said.
And for the person willing to rat out a smoker, “Are you willing to show up in court and testify?”
Enter the 100 State Street Ad Hoc Smoke-Free Committee: Dodd, Michelle Hubbard, Michael Gray-Jordan and Jackie Moore.
“No doubt must be left in the minds of ‘sneak smokers’ that smoking in the building will not be tolerated,” the group demanded in a manifesto to HallKeen Management, a private firm that runs the facility for the housing authority.
In other words, no more exhaling into the bathroom fan, no more blowing smoke out an open window (and, if the wind is right, back into the open window next door), no more gatherings with visiting family members that end with a cloud of tobacco-related toxins billowing out into the hallway whenever someone opens the apartment door.
And alas, no more friendly neighborhood.
One woman who tried single-handedly to take on the smokers around her apartment last year was so traumatized by their pushback that she now refuses to even be seen speaking to members of the ad hoc committee.
And when the committee members sat down privately with officials from HallKeen Management over the long winter to discuss their concerns, the very smokers they were complaining about tried several times to crash the meeting, falsely claiming, “We have a right to be here!”
“There’s a climate of fear in this building – a fear of the backlash (from the smokers),” said Moore, who’s lived at 100 State Street for 13 years. “It’s very tangible and real. It’s irrational, some of it, but it’s real. So a majority of residents here don’t want to be involved. That’s why we’re such a small committee.”
Small but highly motivated. Dodd recently underwent quadruple-bypass surgery and has provided management with a letter from his cardiologist stressing his need for a smoke-free environment.
“When I mentioned it to her (the doctor) – that a building that was supposed to be nonsmoking had smoking in it – she was absolutely astounded,” recalled Dodd.
Gray-Jordan also has had a quadruple bypass and has pulmonary issues to boot. Same goes for Hubbard, who suffers from bronchitis.
“I chose this building specifically because it was nonsmoking,” said Hubbard, who moved in just over a year ago and thinks HallKeen Management is too slow to investigate complaints and too reluctant to send people packing once the requisite three warnings have been issued and ignored.
“Yes, it’s difficult, but it’s not impossible,” she said. “It reinforces the idea that, ‘So what, you can keep smoking, nothing’s going to happen to you.’ ”
Not so, according to HallKeen Regional Director Russell Johnson.
“It can be difficult,” conceded Johnson. “Oftentimes the complaints come in and we don’t know which apartment it’s coming from. So we have to go on the prowl and be detectives.”
A few weeks ago, after months of investigation and documentation, HallKeen finally had a case ready for eviction court. It’s a big deal – if you get thrown out of Section 8 public housing, you’re rendered ineligible to move into another subsidized unit for three years.
Faced with that prospect, the tenant – who happened to be Dodd’s next-door neighbor – left voluntarily last weekend.
“That’s progress,” said Dodd. “But it took more than six months for us to get to that point.”
Meanwhile, the battle goes on. Hubbard, who still suffers a nearby smoker, has taken to putting masking tape around the inside of her apartment door whenever she’s home to seal off any incoming smoke seepage. But what about the smoke she can distinctly detect coming through her wall outlets?
“This isn’t about the smokers being able to smoke. This is about being able to smoke in the building. We don’t care if you smoke – that’s your business. Be my guest – go out to the street and just light up,” said Hubbard. “But you don’t have the right to endanger the health of others. It’s not about convenience, it’s not about whether you like the smell. This is a health issue.”
So go ahead and call them a bunch of snitches. Even close the elevator door before they can get inside, which is exactly what one of Hubbard’s neighbors did recently as she rushed to hop aboard.
But expect them to look – not to mention breathe – the other way? Not a chance.
“I just failed a lung-function test for the first time ever,” said Hubbard, “We’re not the kind of people who are easily intimidated.”
Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: