Public housing resident faces eviction for smoking in Belleville apartment

News-DemocratApril 10, 2014 

Despite facing eviction from a senior public housing complex in Belleville, lifetime smoker Joe Brawley says he will continue smoking in his apartment and is prepared to fight in court a federal initiative aimed at making public housing buildings smoke-free.

Brawley, 70, received a written warning April 1 from the St. Clair County Housing Authority stating he had been verbally warned three times that smoking in the apartment was a violation of his lease. The next time he was caught smoking in the apartment, he would be fined $25 and if he continued smoking, his lease would be terminated.

"This apartment is mine. In my own private residence, I should be allowed to smoke. They have no right to tell me anything except keep it clean and don't tear it up," Brawley said. "This is the same as my home. You are going to come into my home and tell me how to live?"

The Housing Authority and Health Department of St. Clair County have been working with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to make public housing buildings smoke-free. The county manages 22 housing sites.

In 2008, a state law prohibited smoking in nearly all public places and required smokers to light up at least 15 feet away from a building's entrance.

St. Clair County Housing Executive Director Dave Wagner said the intent of the policy is not to evict smokers, but to protect non-smokers from secondhand smoke created by their neighbors. Prior to the smoke-free policy, Wagner said the county received multiple complaints from non-smokers regarding secondhand smoke in their rooms and common places.

"We certainly made more people happy with the no smoking policy than made angry. Most things are like that. You try and do what you can for the betterment of all," Wagner said. "I think this policy is in keeping with that. Certainly, HUD has an initiative nationwide to go to that."

Wagner said no residents in public housing have been evicted for smoking in their rooms, though, some verbal warnings have been issued.

The Bel Plaza I and Bel Plaza II apartments in Belleville and the Adeline James housing in Centreville have banned smoking in the buildings since July. Assisted living housing centers in St. Clair County already banned smoking.

Brawley moved into the Bel Plaza I at 114 S. Church St. in August 2012. His lease states the apartment is a "designated non-smoking building," according to the written warning from the county. Bel Plaza I has a central ventilation system, according to Wagner.

Wagner said the issue comes down to Brawley violating a "perfectly proper lease."

"We are going to handle it as any lease violation. There will be lease violation notices and yet if he continues to smoke and ignore the warnings and fines, he will be evicted," Wagner said.

The building has a designated smoking-area, a bench outside its entrance. However, Brawley said health issues with his knees and back make it difficult for him to make the trek from his fourth floor apartment to the designated area to smoke a cigarette.

"Some of the residents are physically incapable of doing things. Don't punish them for not being 20 years old anymore," Brawley said.

Brawley said he began smoking when he was 14 and efforts to quit the habit in the past caused withdrawal symptoms, such as chest pains and gaining 30 pounds in weight.

Those withdrawals are not unusual, according to Jan Douglass with the St. Clair County Health Department. Douglass, community health program coordinator with the department, helps promote the smoke-free program in public housing.

"If you've been a smoker for 40 or 50 years, it becomes so addicting," Douglass said. "Nicotine addiction is as addicting as cocaine or heroin. Lots of times smokers of 40 or 50 years must have a health scare to quit."

Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at dkelley@bnd.com or 618-239-2501.

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