MILFORD, Ohio (THE CINCINNATI ENQUIRER) — Beulah Toombs started smoking a long time ago. She isn't sure exactly when, but she was young. Maybe it was 1935, the year Babe Ruth quit playing baseball. Or maybe 1939, the year "The Grapes of Wrath" was published. But it was definitely before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
Toombs – her friends call her Billie – is 89 years old, and she is still smoking. For a woman smoking since the Roosevelt administration, she is remarkably healthy. But now she has a problem. A little more than a year ago, her apartment building in Milford went smoke-free. She had one year to quit, but she just could not do it. Or maybe she never tried.
The apartment building, the AHEPA 127 Apartments, started keeping track of her smoking transgressions. Eventually, management deemed Toombs "non-compliant."
They gave her one last chance to quit, and Beulah made her decision.
"I don't think so," she said. "This is my home, and I think you can do whatever you want to in your home."
So in the next week or so, Toombs will start packing her things, shelf after shelf of figurines, framed photos of her grandchildren and a decade of clutter. She will take her Doral cigarettes and her ashtrays with her. And her little dog, too.
Occupants of the AHEPA 127 apartments are low-income seniors who pay reduced rent under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Section 202. HUD did not and could not mandate that the building go smoke-free because the building, like nearly all Section 202 housing, is privately owned.
But in 2010 HUD started sending out notices "encouraging" property owners and managers "to implement smoke-free housing policies in some or all of the properties they own."
The AHEPA 127 manager, Amy Lyn Moore, would not talk about the "situation" with Toombs. "What I can say is we have no comment," Moore said.
The policy is made clear in notes to residents over the past 15 months. In February 2013, all residents were informed of the new policy: "No smoking of any tobacco product in any of the residential units, patios, inside common areas, outside common areas, parking lots and all other areas that fall within AHEPA 127-I."
People who already lived there, such as Toombs, who has been a resident for 10 years, were given a full year to quit smoking on the property. For that one year (until Jan. 31, 2014) they could smoke in their apartments, and outside, but only on "the back 3 patios."
In April 2013, Toombs got her first notice. She was caught smoking by the front doors. She got a violation letter that said she must be compliant or she could be evicted. Toombs began to get nervous.
"My mom is getting older, and this is causing her so much stress," said her daughter, Mary Ann Burgoyne. "She kept telling me that she was paying her rent. She was a little confused. She thought they might put her in a debtors prison."
Burgoyne said she or any of her siblings would be happy to take their mother in, but none of them have "flat houses." Toombs walks fine, but she cannot do stairs. "The street curb is about the most she can do," her daughter said.
On Feb. 1, the building went smoke-free. Toombs kept on smoking, but now the building management, and its residents, were watching.
On April 16, Toombs got another letter revealing an "established pattern of non-compliance." This letter was detailed. It showed that at 11:25 a.m. April 8, during a regularly scheduled apartment inspection by maintenance and management, ashtrays containing cigarette butts were "observed in both your bathroom and living room." On April 11, a neighbor complained of smelling smoke. On April 13, a "guest" observed a cigarette and a lighter in Toombs's apartment and told management.
The letter said that one more smoking-related incident would get her evicted.
Burgoyne, the daughter, had a meeting with the building manager, Moore, looking for a compromise. Burgoyne offered to buy a "fancy" air purifier. But Moore offered no middle ground. "We don't want anything, we just want my mother to be left alone," Burgoyne said.
That is not going to happen, because Belulah is fighting history and science.
"Since the 1964 Surgeon General's Report, 2.5 million adults who were nonsmokers died because they breathed second-hand smoke. There is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke," the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.
People's tolerance for smoking is also on the decline.
Burgoyne said she tried to enlist a senior-advocacy group. They told her this was "the future" and said her mother should stop smoking.
Brian Sullivan is a public affairs supervisor with HUD. He said his department cannot make a building owner do anything. But it is happening anyway. "Building owners do not like smoking. There is the stink. The risk of fire, and you can never get that smell out," Sullivan said. "When the resident leaves you have to paint it twice."
He didn't have data on the number of HUD-subsidized buildings that are smoke-free because so many are privately owned. But he said the trend is unstoppable.
"Do you remember people smoking in elevators? Can you even imagine that now?" he said. "This is happening."
The Public Health Law Center in Minneapolis advocates to restrict smoking. Warren Ortland is a staff attorney there, and he said that while he feels for a woman like Toombs, she has no legal standing. "An owner can make a building smoke-free," Ortland said.
In the future, he said, people will find increasingly fewer places to smoke. Even in an apartment. Nearly all of these decisions are made by property owners, not government regulation or ordinance.
Is he worried that this will affect the poor more than the wealthy? He is not.
"You don't want smoke-free living just to be for the affluent," Ortland said. "You don't want people who are in low-income housing to live with second-hand smoke."
Toombs started looking for a new place and thinks she may have one. She has until the end of the month.
Three women who live in the AHEPA 127 Apartments who were sitting in the lobby last week will be happy for the clean air. They said rules are rules.
Shirley Day has been a resident of the AHEPA 127 Apartments for five years and does not like cigarette smoke. "I have always been a nonsmoker. You can smell it when somebody is smoking; it stinks bad," Day said.
And what about losing Toombs? "I wish she would quit. I like her, but I love the policy."