Bedbugged! Landlords, tenants and the real enemy in this war

By Theresa Braine  | July 7, 2011 - 1:45PM

Bedbugged! is a weekly column by journalist and bed-bug survivor Theresa Braine. For more, click here.

When bed bugs were found in the desk of a courthouse employee last year, her misfortune was broadcast in the New York media. 

What was less known was that she lived in a coveted neighborhood, in a rent-stabilized building that was saturated with bed bugs, according to tenants and a savvy pest-control operator (PCO) with whom I have spoken about the place. 

“She doesn’t have a bed anymore,” said the PCO, who was called in by another tenant to inspect several apartments but was barred from returning by management because the building’s owners wanted to handle it their way. “She sleeps on a chair. It’s a cloth chair. And when we unzipped the chair cover, there were at least 20 bed bugs inside.”

Since he was not sanctioned to treat, he put the creatures in a jar so the tenants could show management. “I was speechless,'' he said. "I didn’t know what else to do.”

As annoying as my bed-bug situation was, there are worse scenarios being played out everywhere. For one thing, not everyone can move. I do not know why this woman stayed. But for whatever reason, many people are trapped. Unable to sell their apartments because of an infestation, they are stuck living there.

Some cannot afford to leave. Others are in public housing, with little freedom over where they live. Still others get so enmeshed in the fight against the landlord and the bugs that they can’t imagine abandoning post. Then there is that benighted group of people who move, but bring bed bugs with them.

Landlords and supers are on the front line of a battle that connects us all more thoroughly than any Buddhist chant could. An infestation that is allowed to drag on affects not only the tenants but also their workplaces, their clients, the economy, their relatives, friends and any places of business they frequent.

Yet landlords often persist in blaming, and fighting, the very tenants who should be their comrades in arms, while many tenants, unable or unwilling to do their part, compound the problem. 

Most vermin do not spread the way bed bugs do. True, roaches can be carried on clothing or backpacks. But they do not habitually climb onto those things looking for a ride. And rats—well if a rat was clinging to my backpack, I think I’d know. 

Bed bugs think nothing of hitching a ride, then hanging out, laying eggs and harboring in everything from a friend’s comfy sofa to a movie-theater chair. If an infestation isn't taken care of properly—with all surrounding units inspected, and treated if necessary—then all hope may be lost for ever getting the things out of a building. 

Laws have been enacted in the year since the courthouse incident. Landlords are now required to inform prospective tenants of bed-bug infestations going back a year. But education is not spreading as quickly as the bugs, and people tend to cling to their ignorance. It leads to situations that are out of control, such as the aforementioned building.

That was a year ago. Given that the place had been infested for a year before that, and knowing how slowly management was acting, I’d be surprised if the problem has been resolved even now. 

I spoke to another tenant in the building who was caught up in a legal battle with landlords over his infested place, maintaining, among other things that the super had put bed bug-infested garbage outside his door to try and get rid of him so that market-rate tenants could be lured in, and because he was considered a troublemaker.

“If it had been up to me we would have been out of there,” he said. “But I really kind of gave into my wife’s wishes, and in terms of money she was right.”

Loathe to give up their low rent, he and his wife decided to stick it out and fight. But he had gotten so drawn into the battle that he’d been unable to work, what with the stress and the lack of sleep and the stringent prep that was needed to make sure he wasn't carrying critters when he'd leave the house to see clients.   

The Bedbugger forums are filled with posts from tenants recounting their bed bug experiences and from PCOs recalling what they have seen. On the other side of the issue, landlords (who don't tend to participate in the forums) who want to do the right thing can find themselves dealing either with hysterical tenants who want a quick fix, or with clueless ones who drag abandoned furniture in off the street and infest the building, or dishonest ones who don't divulge their own bed bug past (or present).

But the city is rife with landlords and property managers who do not want to hear about it. One PCO wrote of an elderly woman who had been ridiculed for months by the management in her public-housing complex for saying she had bed bugs, and had fled to sleep in her bathtub. The bugs still found her. The PCO, finally been brought in by management to treat, was beside himself.

It is tales like these that make me quail. Even a responsible building-management company whose owner I spoke to last year and who seemed on the surface to be proactive, with inspections built into the renting process, was more about absolving the landlord of responsibility than working with a tenant whose apartment is afflicted. Teamwork was not really part of the equation, just blame and cost-avoidance. 

This is not a winning strategy. Working together against a pernicious common enemy is. But that requires both education, and the willingness to absorb it. 

Next week: Talking to people about bed bugs.


Theresa Braine is a NYC-based journalist and bed bug survivor whose work has appeared in the NY Daily News, People, Newsday and other outlets. Bedbugged! is her weekly column about life in the trenches and climbing out with your sanity intact. 


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