A group of non-smoking residents at 400 Towers are demanding stronger enforcement of a no-smoking policy that was instituted in April and they've prepared a petition for the Housing Authority asking for sterner measures against rule violators.
Nathan Varland, executive director of the Housing Authority, said the agency is doing everything it can to enforce the ban on smoking in apartments, in the building and anywhere within 25 feet of the building.
"I'm also frustrated," Varland said. "We put a policy in place in order to help us go in a healthier direction and it's something I feel strongly about and something I want to move forward on."
Varland has been the director since 2015 and he said work on the policy began under the previous housing director. It took a long time to implement because the authority wanted to make sure it was rolled out to residents in a way that gave them time to adjust their living arrangments if necessary.
There was a 60-day notice prior to the policy becoming official. That gave residents who wanted to continue smoking in their apartments time to move and while some people did move during that 60-day period, Varland couldn't say whether they left 400 Towers specifically because of the new policy.
There have been five residents who quit smoking as a result of the new policy, however, Varland said.
According to the non-smoking residents, many who gathered in a meeting Friday night led by resident Beverly Morgan, most of the residents who smoke are complying with the rules, but there are about 20 residents who continue to either smoke in their rooms, in hallways and stairwells or in the front of the building.
"There's no place you can go outside and not smell smoke," Morgan said.
Residents expressed concerns about the dangers of secondhand smoke, especially for vulnerable people, such as seniors and those with related medical issues. It's not just an issue with smelling smoke, they said, but a real health concern.
Under the new policy, smokers who violate the rules get three chances to comply. First, there is a written warning, then a fine, and then eviction.
"I know for a fact there are some people who should have been evicted already," said one resident at Friday's meeting.
That isn't accurate, Varland said. There are a few residents who are on the cusp of a third violation, but they haven't crossed the line yet.
"There are certainly not people who have three strikes right now," Varland said. "We go by our own policies as much as we try to enforce our policies fairly. If we have evidence we move ahead with eviction."
Getting evidence can be difficult, however. During non-office hours, the only people around to file complaints about smokers are other residents. There is a group of volunteers who are empowered to patrol the building and grounds and turn in complaints, but those complaints must still be substantiated in order for the housing authority to take action.
While the Batavia Housing Authority developed its own policy, during the period of implementation, the Housing and Urban Development Department issued its own policy banning smoking at HUD-funded facilities.
"A few tenants have been slower to realize that it's time to change their habits or move," Varland said. "That's up to them. We can only enforce our policy the way it is intended and we're going to enforce it."
The authority also recently received a grant from the Greater Rochester Health Foundation to build amenities, outdoor spaces, for non-smokers and those projects should be completed by late spring or early summer, Varland said.
Cigarettes aren't the only smoking issue Varland is dealing with. Residents said, and Varland confirmed, there is also some marijuana use at 400 Towers.
Varland said the housing authority is bound by federal law to treat smoking marijuana like any other illicit drug use. It's a crime and Batavia PD has been cooperative in trying to investigate these crimes, he said.
"We are forced to take it very, very seriously," Varland said.