Maryland renter faces eviction over housing smoking ban

SILVER SPRING, Md. (AP) — The letter asking Taja Robinson to vacate her home was delivered on Christmas Eve. Robinson, 37, had just returned from a shift at Target, where her $13-per-hour job allows her to support herself, her two daughters and her infant grandson in a three-bedroom rental unit at Snowden’s Ridge Apartments in Silver Spring, Md.

“You have violated the Smoking Addendum by smoking in the Premises and/or in the common areas of the property,” the letter said. “This is a repeated violation of the lease. . . . Accordingly, your Lease is terminated effective January 31, 2020.”

Robinson had trouble understanding. A “repeated violation”? Yes, she smoked, but mostly in the parking lot several yards from the building — and never inside the common areas or her apartment, where her 4-month-old grandson spends most of his time.

She had not received notice that her smoking was an issue or a warning that her lease was at risk of termination. Robinson scanned the rest of the letter, focusing on the last paragraph. If she did not leave the apartment by the end of the month, it said, the property owner and manager would sue.

In cities and suburbs across the country, tenants like Robinson have faced harsh consequences for smoking, becoming the latest subjects in a testy debate about policies to lower nicotine use and how they are enforced.

Smoking bans have become more widespread in recent years, largely because they are considered a boon to public health. In 2018, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development implemented a nationwide ban on smoking at all government-subsidized housing, such as Snowden’s Ridge, allowing authorities to evict tenants after three smoking violations.

In January, U-Haul announced that it would no longer hire smokers, joining a growing list of companies to adopt that policy. And last year, Montgomery County passed a bill prohibiting smoking at all outdoor areas where food is served, including patios, decks and porches.

Advocates warn that enforcing these bans too aggressively — such as with the threat of eviction — could add to the hardship of vulnerable communities that have disproportionately higher rates of nicotine addiction, including people who live under the poverty line, people with mental illnesses and the elderly.

“To let people buy an addictive product, to actively advertise it to them, and then just to say ‘Don’t do it’ is to not understand the social reality of what it means to smoke,” said Harald Schmidt, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who argues that curtailing employment opportunities for smokers is ethically unjustified.

In offering landlords the option of eviction, the HUD ban may have opened another pathway for tenants to enter homelessness, harming instead of benefiting public health, Dave Fagundes and Jessica L. Roberts, law professors at the University of Houston, said in a recent essay. The policy, they wrote, “poses unappreciated distributional concerns, with the heaviest burdens falling on historically disadvantaged populations.”

When HUD introduced its ban in 2016, then-Secretary Julián Castro told reporters, “The last thing that we want are evictions.” But nationwide, individual public housing authorities and property management companies oversee evictions, often with a great deal of discretion, said Bridgett Simmons, a staff attorney at the National Housing Law Project.

“Enforcement is going to vary,” Simmons said. “Some management staff will see an opportunity to get rid of a tenant they don’t like and seize it. Others will be more sympathetic.”

Advocates say they have heard of several lease terminations since the HUD ban took effect, although a department spokesperson declined to respond to inquiries about how many violations there have been or how many of those violations, if any, have led to evictions.

“Essentially, we know very little about these bans because there are no reporting requirements,” said Schmidt, the Penn professor. “It’s very frustrating.”

In the past two years, the National Housing Law Project has received just over a dozen inquiries about how the ban should — or can — be enforced, Simmons said. These prompted the nonprofit organization to publish a guide to “Equitable Smoke-Free Public Housing,” which among other recommendations, suggests that landlords provide at least three verbal and written warnings before a notice of termination.

Robinson said she was not informed of any violations before she received the 30-day notice to leave. Like most smokers, she started smoking as a teenager. She picked it up after her first child died of sudden infant death syndrome, she said, and now smokes about a pack a day.

In mid-December, a Montgomery County police officer who spotted her smoking in the parking lot said he would inform Grady Management, the property management company. She said she did not object because she did not think she had violated any rules.

An addendum attached to Robinson’s lease states that smoking is prohibited in the apartments and in common areas, including “hall ways, stairways, community rooms, trash rooms and laundry rooms,” but does not mention the parking lot.

The notice delivered to Robinson also said she had “disrupted the livability of the community . . . and adversely affected the health of other residents.” When she called Grady Management to clarify, she was told that the company had received complaints about her smoking, but the company declined to say when or from whom.

“It’s ridiculous,” Robinson said one recent morning, strolling through Snowden’s Ridge, which is one of a cluster of low-income rental properties in Silver Spring. She pointed out cigarette butts strewn on the front steps of other apartments in the complex, along the stone pathways and across the parking lot. As of mid-January, there is only one sign indicating that smoking is prohibited, located at the entrance to the laundry room.

“Who is complaining? Folks here are smoking themselves, and nobody has ever said anything,” Robinson said. “Grady thinks that just because we’re low-income, we’re stupid.”

Brian S. Alford, president of Grady Management, said a nonsmoking policy has been in place at Snowden’s Ridge for 15 years. He did not respond to multiple inquiries asking for clarification about when Robinson was spotted smoking, how many violations she allegedly made, or where exactly residents are not allowed to smoke.

Nina Janopaul, president and chief executive of Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing, a Virginia-based nonprofit organization that recently purchased Snowden’s Ridge, said, “Due to confidentiality, we cannot discuss specific resident matters with the media.” APAH, she added, works “with all residents to help them maintain their housing and will continue to do so.”

A local renters alliance has rallied behind Robinson, helping her file a formal complaint with Montgomery’s Office of Landlord-Tenant Affairs and asking Grady Management for negotiations. In the meantime, Robinson and her family have stayed put.

Matt Losak, who leads the alliance, said that apart from having Robinson’s lease renewed, the office wants Grady to significantly change its approach toward evictions. The company, which manages about a dozen low-income properties in Montgomery, has shown a “callous disregard for renters” on multiple occasions, he said.

“There is an expectation of the landlord to treat tenants with dignity and respect,” said Losak, who is working with state legislators to push for a just-cause eviction law in Montgomery. “This isn’t a dormitory at some boarding school. This is about grown-up people and their housing.”

Robinson’s only relative who lives nearby is her mother, who rents a one-bedroom apartment in Silver Spring. If she and her family are evicted, she said, they probably will have to go to a shelter.

“I worked so hard to get here, to have a place in my name, a home for my girls. . . . If we have to go,” she said, tearing up, “I don’t know, I really don’t know.”