Do you ever look at your next project and just wonder, “how the heck are we going to get that done?!”
Well in the summer of 2017, I started working with the KCK Housing Authority (KCKHA) on the long road to creating a smoke-free environment in their 2050 public housing units. Public housing provides a clean, safe, decent, and affordable living environment for eligible, low-income individuals and families. Roughly one-third of the residents living in KCKHA units are children under 18.
When we began working on the smoke-free policy, we realized that doing this project well and positively impacting residents’ health was larger than changing words on leases. We wanted to fulfill HUD-directed lease changes along with accomplishing:
- The first investigation of smoking prevalence for KCKHA to learn how many people smoke, what cessation supports people want, and whether people have insurance and access to medication
- Communication to residents to give them several months to understand and become comfortable with the policy
- Obtain signage in multiple languages that clearly define the new policy
- Provide support for those who are interested in quitting, including access to medication, community programming, and social support
- Train staff to support their residents
- And finally, align efforts with community organizations who work with KCKHA residents to ensure that KCK families have support to stay safely housed.
In Wyandotte County, 24.1 percent of the adult population is a current cigarette smoker – in the KCK Housing Authority, the smoking rate is 37 percent. Plus, we learned that 50 percent of non-smokers reported smelling secondhand smoke inside their own units from neighbors smoking in the complex.
These numbers were daunting, but spurred our work toward smoke-free housing units.
One year later we can join public housing authorities and public health agencies across America who are celebrating because we are now all smoke-free indoors, as well as 25 feet from every building. All housing authorities are required to implement smoke-free policies by the end of this month.
In Wyandotte County, Bonner Springs Housing Authority paved the way by implementing a smoke-free policy in June 2016, with KCK Housing Authority following in their footsteps on January 1, 2018.
When you are the beginning of the process, staring down the road at a policy change that will impact over 2000 units and the 3000 people living there – I won’t lie, it’s intimidating. No one knows this better than Melinda Linnell, director of housing management at the KCK Housing Authority.
Melinda and I have worked together for the past year to support KCK Housing Authority as they implemented the smoke-free housing rule in a way that works best for our community. As we reflected this week on the upcoming deadline, she shared that “the transition has been so smooth compared to the thought process.”
When we started to work together, Melinda’s team feared that this would just not work. How could you possibly implement a smoke-free policy at all their sites with limited resources at their disposal? How could they communicate this change in a positive way to not just residents, but the surrounding communities? But now, she is pleased with the response to the policy. “People have been very receptive and understanding. They look at their health and safety, and they are cooperating because of that. And some smokers see it as … almost adopting a new health lifestyle by implementing this policy.”
She’s talking about former smokers like Carrie Rush, a part-time employee at Douglas Heights High Rise in KCK. With the extra push from the smoke-free policy, Carrie finally quit smoking six months ago and couldn’t be happier. She even surprised her doctor with the fact that she had finally quit. While individuals don’t have to quit smoking to live or work at KCK Housing Authority, the new smoke-free policy and social support at work got her over the finish line to becoming smoke-free.
Creating healthier more equitable communities means tackling big challenges and policy changes. It’s daunting work, but I am thankful to have partners walking beside me and advocating for my community. Together, we WILL achieve a healthier Wyandotte County.
Learn more about HUD’s smoke-free public housing rule.