Renters: Know your bed bug rights

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There was a time when it felt like all you read about in the local news were New York City bed bug infestations. While the media attention has died down a bit, bed bugs are still a big issue in New York City. And despite laws that have been enacted to protect tenants from the sky-high costs of dealing with bed bugs, the headache's not exactly over yet. 

Here's what you need to know:


In recent years, laws have been passed to protect renters from some of the fallout from bed bug infestation. In 2010, a law was passed mandating that new residential tenants in New York City be given a one-year bed bug infestation history for the individual unit and the building. 

The right to a bedbug-free environment is included in New York City's Housing and Maintenance Code, Subchapter 2, Article 4, which names bedbugs in the list of insects a landlord is legally obligated to eradicate.  And the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) lists bedbugs as a Class B violation, meaning that they are hazardous and must be removed by the landlord within 30 days. 


"Landlords are required by law to eliminate vermin. Unfortunately, the law does not specify how they must do this," says Janet Ray Kalson, a lawyer with Himmelstein McConnell Gribben Donoghue & Joseph (a Brick sponsor), who specializes in environmental issues, and says she gets a couple of calls a month from clients wondering about their rights when it comes to bed bugs. 

Usually the landlord will, indeed, pay for and send in an exterminator, but sometimes they'll cut corners on quality. And actually eradicating bed bugs requires preparation (furniture must be covered, clothes dried on high heat), as well as follow up, which some landlords pay for; others don't.

Richard Kane, founder of Bed Bug Pest Prep, a company that prepares apartments for extermination, including laundering clothes and linens, stripping beds, and prepping outlets, says about 90 percent of the time, the people paying him are tenants, not landlords, because his is considered an "elective service." It's usually only the very high-end management companies that offer to pay for preparation services, says Kane.

Often, exterminators will cut corners, says Kane. Rather than just treating an apartment, "exterminators should put barrier of pesticides around it so bugs don't migrate into nearby places," he says. (They don't always do that.)

Also, when it comes to bed bug disclosure rules, there are limitations. Not all tenants know that landlords have to disclose bed bug history, and they may not ask to see the history. And, most times landlords will include a rider with the building's bed bug history with a lease. But if you've gotten all the way to a lease signing, you may be too far along to feel like pulling out of a rental.

"Plus, there's no real penalty for not disclosing the information," says Kalson. "There are no real teeth to the legislation," she says.


Before you rent:  One thing that any prospective tenant can do is go on the HPD's website and check an address for bed bug violations. "If  you see bed bugs in a building, you might want to avoid living there," says Kalson. The Bed Bug Registry is another good resource.

If you're already a renter and find, or suspect, an infestation: "Unless the landlord is cooperative, you may want to hire your own bed bug expert to do an assessment and tell you what's needed," says Kalson. Many people choose to hire a bug-sniffing dog to confirm an infestation when they've seen bugs or bites (but Kane warns that these dogs will sometimes find false positives). 

If your landlord won't pay for any or all of your bed bug extermination needs, you may want to consider consulting a tenant lawyer, says Kalson. "People need to understand what the law is and what rights they do and don't have," she says. 

Kalson says she recently had a case where a trial with expert bedbug testimony had been scheduled, but at the 11th hour — the night before the trial was set to start — the landlord decided to settle and pay for proper remediation.

Of course, how much you decide to fight will depend on how much time you have left on your lease. "If it's not rent stabilized, you may just want to pay for the bed bug removal services yourself and leave at the end of your lease. But if you are rent-stabilized, or plan to stay in the apartment for a while, you may want to invest in the fight," she says.

"A lot of people don't understand that if you walk out of your lease early, the landlord could sue you," she adds. "Your defense could be you were constructively evicted due to bed bugs, but you should consult with a landlord-tenant lawyer to make sure you're making wise choices."


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