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Affordable housing bans smoking, possibly truancy

Wednesday, May 27, 2015 by Courtney Griffin

Board commissioners with the Housing Authority of the City of Austin approved a motion Thursday that will change the leasing requirements for its public housing tenants.

Now, if residents are caught smoking more than four times in non-designated areas, they will be subject to the eviction process, according to the commissioners’ unanimous decision at the regular meeting.

A second change would also consider evicting residents if their children do not attend school.

Michael Gerber, president and chief executive officer of HACA, said there are more than 4,300 individuals in its public housing program. HACA operates about 1,838 of these units in the city.

Gerber told the Austin Monitor that the housing authority does not know exactly how many smokers are in its program, but he does know that “120 HACA residents” have self-identified as tobacco users by receiving help through Austin Travis County Integral Care’s health-related services.

In a 2013 survey, about 67 percent of residents identified as nonsmokers, he said.

Pilar Sanchez, vice president of the Housing and Community Development Department, said HACA is following in the footsteps of more than 500 other housing authorities nationwide in its decision to ban smoking in its units. There are at least four in Texas with smoke-free policies.

“I don’t know of the Texas housing authority that’s had it the longest,” Sanchez said. “But I do know Salem, Oregon, was the first housing authority in the nation to pass a smoke-free policy, and that was back in 1992.”

Gerber said HACA expects to save at least $130 in paint materials per smoke-damaged unit, excluding labor costs. He added that units damaged by fire have cost the housing authority $5,000 to $25,000 to repair in the past.

Although the smoking policy may be unpopular among some residents, many commissioners had greater qualms about adding a lease clause that would allow HACA to evict residents with truant school-age children.

“This was really hard to come to this conclusion, but we felt like we needed to support our local school districts. They have come to us several times asking for help because there will be several kids on our properties not showing up for school,” Sanchez said, explaining that HACA currently had no “teeth” to encourage students in its residences to attend school.

Sanchez said the truancy clause would be considered along with other lease violations when determining whether to evict.

HACA Commissioner Charles Bailey, however, said it was not the authority’s job to ensure that students go to class; rather it is the authority’s job to provide affordable housing.

“I understand the reasons behind it, but I’m not interested in throwing families out because someone said someone else wasn’t going to school,” Bailey said.

Gerber said HACA has approached residents about their children’s school attendance before. The effects of poverty – such as lack of transportation, family disruption, depression and health instability – all impede good attendance, he added.

“I think we do want to say (attendance is) an expectation,” Gerber said.

Commissioner Tyra Duncan-Hall asked if HACA kept track of truancy officers taking parents to court.

Sanchez said that without the lease clause, HACA had no legal authority to open a conversation about truancy unless residents approached the housing authority.

“I have a real problem with this because if you had a kid (from) a big family … that (family) probably has more resources staying here than they would if they were kicked out,” Commissioner Carl Richie said. “I think this is probably well-intentioned, but we are using a shotgun to kill a gnat.”

Duncan-Hall also asked if the policy could result in the eviction of an entire family, with multiple students, if only one student is truant.

Staff was tasked with reworking the language and policy to bring back a possible amendment.

The smoking ban goes into effect Sept. 1, and HACA will team up with other governmental entities to provide cessation classes and support for smoking residents. Off-limit areas will include resident housing, parking lots, some common areas and porches.

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