How to Respond to Bedbug Infestation at Your Site
For the first time since the 1940s, bedbugs in the past five years have become a serious problem for housing providers across the United States and Canada.
The costs of dealing with a bedbug problem can easily overwhelm a site's annual budget for pest control. Bedbug control expert Rick Cooper describes the consequences of the resurgence of the tiny creatures for multifamily housing: “strained budgets, broken leases, unhappy tenants, and, in some cases, litigation.”
If you haven't faced the problem yet, be thankful. Bedbugs are hard to get rid of. Treatment can be very costly and time consuming. Bedbugs make life miserable for residents. And they can ruin your site's reputation. The best advice is to take initial complaints seriously, and hire a competent, experienced pest control vendor to treat your site according to an aggressive plan.
We'll give you six tips from site managers who have already faced the new scourge of bedbugs. Here's what they suggest you do if you suspect a problem.
Tip #1: Take Complaints Seriously
Bedbugs are not imaginary. Especially if there have been reports of a bedbug problem in your area, take complaints from your residents seriously.
Residents will report itchy welts and rashes, but may not know the source. Some may report worsening asthma. Because bedbugs come out at night and hide during the day, residents may not actually see the pests and may think the bites came from a mosquito.
Tip #2: Avoid Arguments About Who Is to Blame
According to Cooper, courts are likely to view residents suffering from bedbug infestations as victims. Judges have shown little patience with site managers who have not taken appropriate steps to deal with the problem. You should act quickly when you suspect you have bedbugs at your site. While you are debating whether residents are responsible, the problem is probably getting worse—and costlier to deal with.
Court action may well go the resident's way. Consider a recent New York case. A resident at a Mitchell-Lama cooperative development sued the complex for damages arising from a bedbug infestation. In 2007, she told the site's management that the building was plagued by bedbugs, but the staff said that there was nothing they could do about the problem. Management said shareholders of the units were responsible for the extermination of the bedbugs in their unit except for a one-time fogging paid for by the site. The resident took action on her own, hiring private exterminators to treat her unit. Despite the treatment, the bedbugs kept returning to her home, perhaps because surrounding units were not also treated.
According to the New York court, a site manager has a legal duty to maintain the building in good repair. In this case, the manager was on notice of the bedbug infestation but took no steps to remedy the condition. The court awarded the resident damages of over $4,000 [Zayas v. Franklin Plaza, April 2009].
State and local laws differ, but generally it has been very difficult to prove in court that resident negligence introduced the pests. Bedbugs migrate easily and can survive nearly a year without feeding. They are not the product of poor hygiene. And even if it is true that residents introduced the bedbugs into your site, as the owner or manager, you are probably still responsible under state or local law—or your lease provisions—for getting rid of them. No matter who caused the problem, the presence of bedbugs may amount to a breach of the “warranty of habitability.” Under most residential lease agreements, you are obligated to keep the premises habitable throughout the term of the lease. That means you must take reasonable action to eliminate the infestation.
PRACTICAL POINTER: Ask your attorney about your specific obligations and those of your residents. Keep in mind that some local governments have recently adopted ordinances on bedbug control that set specific requirements for housing providers. For example, in 2008, Jersey City, N.J., passed an ordinance requiring owners to pay outright for an initial and follow-up bedbug treatment. If additional treatments are needed, the owner can charge the resident. San Francisco has established fines of $500 per day for owners that do not address bedbug infestations.
Tip #3: Be Aggressive
There is benefit to acting quickly, before the bedbugs have time to migrate from one unit to another.
In late 2006, residents of the Hubert Apartments, a high-rise public housing complex for the elderly in Reading, Penn., began reporting a pest problem. After staff of the Reading Housing Authority inspected a few units, they realized the building was infested with bedbugs.
The housing authority first tried cleaning individual units and spraying pesticide, not once but four times over two weeks. (Experts recommend separate treatments to kill newly hatched bugs earlier treatments missed.) However, it was too late. The bugs had already spread throughout the building, to nearly a third of all units, according to housing authority staff member Fred Prutzman. “They were scattered all over the building,” he says.
The best option was to relocate the residents temporarily and fumigate the entire building. In July 2007, that's what the authority did. Working with its pest management contractor, the housing authority emptied the building for 72 hours and flooded it with a poison gas called Vikane.
According to Prutzman, fumigation was the only method that gave the housing authority the confidence it was getting all the bugs in the building—at least for one day. The price was high—nearly $50,000 without relocation costs—but it was effective.
Tip #4: Be Persistent
Fumigation was not the end of the story, though. The poison has no lasting effects, so bedbugs can return at any time, in the same strength they existed before. Thus, the housing authority continues to work with its pest control contractor to keep bedbugs at bay in Hubert and its other sites.
Bedbugs are not easy to get rid of. Adult bedbugs hide and lay their eggs deep in mattresses, in baseboards, in appliances, and in cracks in walls and floors. According to one expert, clutter is the bedbug's best friend. To kill bedbugs, you have to find and eliminate their hiding places. Because they travel easily through ventilation systems and through crevices from one unit to another, you have to follow them. Because not everyone feels the bites, you may not even be aware of every unit that has a problem. In addition, you have to make return visits to every unit to make sure the treatment was effective. One-time treatments won't work.
Tip #5: Choose a Qualified Vendor
Because the nationwide problem has just resurfaced, not all exterminators know how to spot and treat bedbugs, says Prutzman. To add to the problem, some populations are resistant to insecticides. Prutzman believes it pays to be careful when you choose someone to help you deal with a bedbug problem.
The New York City Health Department agrees. It advises, “To get rid of bedbugs, you need to choose the right company, be clear about what you want done, and monitor the service you get.”
Interview the management before you choose a company. Check references. Get multiple price quotes. Get a detailed written treatment plan. Get an equally detailed quote, not a flat-fee quote. Know what's in your service agreement. (Run it by your lawyer.) Keep watch on the work while it's being done. Get a final report to document your diligent response to the problem.
A professional pest management firm should have a variety of approaches available. Look for a firm that has more than one treatment method in its arsenal, since one method does not work equally well in all situations. Insecticides are not the only approach. Other techniques involve steam, cold, and vacuuming.
The vendor should carefully inspect mattresses, chairs, and other belongings to ensure that they are not infested. If they are, they will have to be removed to be treated or disposed of.
To keep the bugs from spreading, close cracks, crevices and other hiding places. (Be clear about whether this job is yours or the vendor's.) At Hubert, the Reading Housing Authority sought to seal units off from each other, to stop new infestations. Staff also treated rooms next to the base unit, in case the bugs had traveled.
Many state health departments recommend that you look for companies that offer integrated pest management services. They are more skilled in inspecting and monitoring site conditions and recognizing problems. Other suggestions from state health departments include:
Be sure you know exactly what pesticide the vendor uses and what its safety precautions are;
Keep residents, staff, and guests out of treatment areas for the time required; and
Make sure the vendor treats mattresses and sofas by applying small amounts of pesticides on seams only. Pesticides should not be sprayed on top of mattresses or sofas.
PRACTICAL POINTER: The New York City Health Department recommends that you hire a pest control firm that is licensed by the state. In New York State, you can check to see if an exterminator is licensed by calling (718) 482-4994 or visiting http://www.dec.ny.gov/docs/materials_minerals_pdf/busweb.pdf. Print a copy for your records. If your state does not have an online service, ask for a copy of the exterminator's license.
Tip #6: Work with Residents
The New York City Housing Authority, as well as many public health agencies, advise residents not to attempt to solve the bedbug problem themselves. Commercial foggers and sprays that residents might try are not effective against bedbugs. You should have your pest control firm talk to residents about what they should and should not do to help.
You should strongly discourage bringing old furniture, especially mattresses and box springs, into the building. Advise your residents that curbside pickups and secondhand furniture may harbor bedbugs—and be the beginning of a long and costly struggle everyone at your site wants to avoid. For more tips on what to advise residents, see our Model Notice: Tell Residents How to Prevent, Get Rid of Bedbugs.
EDITOR'S NOTE: For more information about the bedbug problem, see “Protect Against Claims of Bedbug Infestation,” Insider, April 2008, p. 5.
Peter J. Ashley: Director, Policy and Standards Division, Office of Healthy Homes and Lead Hazard Control, HUD, Washington, DC; (202) 402-7595; Peter_J._Ashley@hud.gov.
Fred Prutzman: Director of Construction Management, Reading Housing Authority, Reading, PA; (610) 796-1383; email@example.com.
Resources for Site Managers
For seven pest control tips for housing managers from the EPA, see: http://www.epa.gov/pesticides/controlling/housing-mgr-tips.htm.
For guidance from the California Department of Public Health, see: http://ww2.cdph.ca.gov/HealthInfo/discond/DocumentsBB%20Guidelines.pdf.
For information on bedbugs and other insects, see the University of Kentucky Insect Advice: http://www.ca.uky.edu/entomology/entfacts/ef636.asp.
HUD IPM Training on the Way
When the Environmental Protection Agency convened a national summit on the problem of bedbugs in April 2009, several HUD staff members attended. According to HUD's Peter Ashley, who was in the group, HUD is keeping an eye on the bedbug problem and may issue guidance for multifamily sites in the coming months.
In addition, HUD and the USDA are now developing training events and materials on integrated pest management (IPM) for maintenance staff. Bedbug control is one topic to be covered. Initial trainings will be limited to public housing staff, but later trainings may be open to other assisted housing providers. When the training is available, details will be posted on the HUD Web site, at http://www.hud.gov/offices/lead/index.cfm.
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