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A new federal rule goes into effect on July 30 that will make public housing smoke-free nationwide. The ban will bar public housing tenants from smoking cigarettes, cigars, pipes or hookahs inside their homes. If they choose to use the tobacco products, they will also have to do so at least 25 feet away from the buildings. Brad Nettles/Staff

When the nation's public housing goes smoke-free next week, the Charleston Housing Authority admits it will be struggling with how to enforce the ban even after adopting its own no-smoking policy last fall.

Don Cameron, executive director of the Charleston Housing Authority, said his agency that serves some 1,470 families is still trying to find the right balance between creating a healthier environment for residents and making sure the shift isn't a jarring one.

"This is probably the biggest change we've had in the last decade that affects the entire public housing industry across the country," Cameron said.

"But if there's somebody in a wheelchair sitting on their front porch smoking, I just don't see us threatening to evict them," he added.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which regulates public housing authorities, announced the smoking ban two years ago. 

The North Charleston Housing Authority will not be subject to the ban because it only applies to public housing units, not the mixed-income units they offer.

Under the Obama administration guidelines, smokers will still be able to rent and live in these communities. But after Monday, tenants and their guests at these federally subsidized properties won't be allowed to light up cigarettes, cigars, pipes or hookahs inside their homes.

If they choose to use tobacco products, they will have to do so at least 25 feet away from the buildings.

It's the 25-foot boundary line that still gives Cameron pause.

"A number of our senior residents smoke, and it would be a hardship for them," said Cameron, an admitted former smoker himself. "We thought it would be insensitive to force them out of their apartment, around the corner or around the street."

They may not have much of a choice.

About 1,200 units owned by the local housing authority are on the Charleston peninsula — the urban core of the city where buildings are close and where streets flood. The housing authority had the option to build designated smoking areas for residents but did not.

Public housing tenants are subject to eviction if caught violating the new regulation four times.

Shamus Roller, executive director of the National Housing Law Project, said his nonprofit worries the ban could result in higher eviction rates for an already vulnerable population.

"People sometimes think, 'Oh, it's just an apartment building,' but all of us benefit by having housing for people who need it. And public housing can't be managed the same way an apartment complex is," Roller said.

Roller said people coming out of homelessness and into public housing may have mental health issues, and a strong correlation between mental health and smoking addiction exists.

HUD said the change isn't about creating a pipeline for eviction. HUD has been pushing public housing authorities nationwide to implement smoke-free policies since 2009, arguing the movement of secondhand smoke cannot be controlled in multifamily buildings and that a smoke-free policy could save housing authorities money.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated the ban could save housing agencies some $153 million annually in lower health care costs, fewer fires and less costly maintenance.

Public health officials in South Carolina praised the move in a state where the CDC estimates 20 percent of adults smoke.

Ahead of the July 30 deadline, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control worked with housing agencies statewide to host educational programs about smoking cessation.

"Everybody has a right to breathe smoke-free air," said Catherine Warner, the outreach coordinator for the DHEC's Division of Tobacco Prevention and Control. "Research shows when people use tobacco in multifamily houses, it harms the health of children and adults. They're exposed to dangerous chemicals in secondhand smoke when it travels through cracks, crevices and ventilators."

While the North Charleston Housing Authority will not be subject to the HUD rule, Executive Director Gary Scott said he is in favor of the idea, adding the agency will be pushing for a smoke-free housing policy in the future.

HUD's Southeastern regional office reports 13,141 public housing units in South Carolina will be impacted by the ban when it goes into effect.

Whether it will work remains to be seen.

A lawsuit was filed Tuesday in New York, where six public housing tenants are challenging the constitutionality of the HUD rule.

Meanwhile, an empty carton of cigarettes littered the sidewalk this week at Wraggborough Homes in downtown Charleston not far from the public housing community's playground, where two tenants sat smoking cigarettes.

Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

Caitlin Byrd is a political reporter at The Post and Courier and author of the Palmetto Politics newsletter. Before moving to Charleston in 2016, her byline appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times. To date, Byrd has won 17 awards for her work.