Bedbugged! Laws don't kill bed bugs--people do

By Theresa Braine  | October 6, 2011 - 3:15PM

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

When the neighbor of a friend of mine found bed bugs in his apartment last year, the friend called me: “When do I start throwing my things out?” she asked.

I told her she didn’t have to, since her apartment didn’t have bed bugs at the time. Nevertheless, a saga ensued.

The neighbor had dragged his mattress down three flights of stairs, possibly scattering bugs as he went. He then leaned the thing, unwrapped, against a wall for three days while it waited for pickup. Worse, the mattress was stationed outside the bedroom wall of another tenant, my friend told me.

I gave her advice and referred her to the proper experts. Her condo board, meanwhile, got an exterminator.

The problem, my friend said, was that the exterminator parked close to a hydrant. Afraid of being towed, he did a hurried spray job and bolted. My friend called the board to find out what she was supposed to do regarding her apartment and was told that every tenant is responsible for getting rid of his or her own bugs.

New York City law has since changed to require landlords, co-op and condo boards to inspect and, if necessary, treat apartments directly above, below or next to an infested one.

If more than one apartment turns out to be infested, landlords and boards must also notify other residents of the presence of bed bugs and lay out a plan to get rid of the pests. 

At any rate, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing: Without realizing it, the property manager was indirectly telling the bed bugs how to behave – saying, in essence, that once sprayed, they should obediently stay put and die. Of course, we know the bugs do not follow instructions well.

New York City law says many things about bed bugs. Yet, since it does not address their behavior, it does not effectively deal with getting rid of them.

You can’t legislate collaboration, and in this era of rugged American individualism gone rogue (sometimes to the exclusion of understanding that what we do is built atop what came before), everyone is stuck with his or her own bugs.

Except the bugs don’t know or care. As I said, these bugs move, and getting rid of bed bugs in one abode will merely send them scurrying to another, plain and simple.

Make all the rules you want. Bed bugs will refuse to be eradicated from your apartment, no matter how many measures you take, if everyone involved in your building, including management and your neighbors, is not cooperating.

The notion of bed bugs suddenly acting contrary to their nature because people in authority want them to would be ludicrous to the point of hilarity if this and other such ignorant attitudes weren’t ruining lives.

Just as I was pondering the notion of individual tenant/owner responsibility, I came across this post on that got my blood boiling. It’s a tale of building mismanagement and tenant irresponsibility (though not on the part of the poster; indeed, he or she seems to be the only sane person in the place) in public housing for the elderly and disabled, no less.

“First, the infested mattresses were dragged out of the apartment, scattering bugs onto the floor and into the elevator, through the hallways, and then outside where they were propped up against the wall right next to the back entrance of the building,” the poster wrote, detailing how the story had begun two months earlier.

“Total disaster! The bugs not only got spread around, but they were in a very convenient place to just walk right back in or hitchhike around to other units!”

The writer—I’m going to call this person a “she”—goes on to say that a mattress and infested box spring stayed where they were dragged for an entire weekend. Over the ensuing two months, she said, bed bugs were discovered throughout the building, including on her floor.

Then came the day that she found one in her bathtub, which is what prompted her post. She did everything right: She captured the bug in a jar and brought it to the housing office, which manages the property from its first-floor offices.

“They immediately told me, ‘It's not our responsibility; it's up to the tenants to treat their own infestations,’ ” she said.

This person went on to write to the local housing authority, investigate various government-agency web sites, interview pest-control professionals and consult our very own Brick Underground.

That is not how I found the forum thread, but it’s part of what drew my attention as I scrolled through the unfolding, and preventable, nightmare.

The tenant even pointed out in her correspondence that unchecked, which they will be if each apartment treats separately, bed bugs would infest the housing authority’s own offices on the first floor of the high-rise. Even this seems not to have swayed the people in charge.

It’s not clear whether the housing authority was legally correct in saying that its tenants are responsible for treating, as this apartment is outside New York City and the rules that took effect April 1 were local.

The saga is still unfolding online as I write. But the blanket dismissal of this person’s misery—
especially given that she had done everything in her power to combat the problem—all while living below the poverty line, by the sound of it seems beyond clueless. What gets me, again, is that all the hassle was unnecessary.

Right after I escaped my bed-bugged apartment last year, a friend of mine summed it up: “It wasn’t the bugs so much as the fact that no matter what you did, what measures you took and how hard you tried to get people to band together, you could not gain any control over the situation.”

From this standpoint the legalities are tangential, because they don’t squarely and comprehensively address the bottom-line issue: getting rid of the bugs. They instead discuss who should be responsible and liable for getting rid of the bugs, giving lawyers and government officials things to argue about while the bugs multiply and drive people mad.

You can’t legislate cooperation, and you can’t cram a bed-bug biology lesson into the head of someone who is thinking only of dollars, though in a short-sighted way given that shortcuts often lead to hugely expensive procedures later.

The plight of the poster is all too common. And that’s just wrong.

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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How to bed bug proof your NYC apartment

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How to talk to your neighbors and your landlord about bed bugs

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