Mort Berkowitz and the other tenant-shareholders of his West 84th Street co-op are quite proud of their backyard garden, and with good reason. The garden was little more than a cracked, concrete wasteland until the co-op remade it into an urban oasis nearly ten years ago. It has become a beloved getaway for shareholders, offering a little peace and quiet in the city. It was even featured on the front page of The New York Times real estate section, Berkowitz proudly points out.
But now the co-op is faced with having to expel some unwanted visitors from the garden - a pack of pesky four-legged creatures, the kind that no building wants to see nosing around its property: urban rats.
Ever since construction began in nearby Riverside Park a few months ago, Berkowitz reports that rats have overrun his block. So the former board president and self-titled "chairman of the rat patrol" is leading the charge against the rodents, who have been spotted burrowing into the garden and feasting on the garbage from a school located behind the building. Working with an exterminator and pressuring neighbors to keep their trash covered and protected, Berkowitz says keeping the rats out is a community effort. "No matter what you do in your own building, it doesn't matter if you don't do it neighborhood-wise," he says. "We're just trying to make it inhospitable for them."
Rats are an ubiquitous urban presence in New York City, often seen scurrying around subway tracks or dashing down sidewalks at night in search of food. In many ways, they're our co-inhabitants: they feed on human garbage and find shelter in our buildings and infrastructure. But there is no reason why rats should be taking up residence in your co-op or condo. There are plenty of steps that buildings and residents can take to minimize the chance that your home will become a rat-friendly environment.
Rats are looking for two things in life: food and a place they can call home. Once they've got those two ingredients, they're able to reproduce at an astonishing rate. According to Richard Cappa, president of Liberty Pest Control, females can have up to four litters a year, with each litter producing up to 21 offspring; infant rats reach sexual maturity within four months.
The key to eliminating the rodents from your building - and keeping them out - is not simply a matter of finding the best traps or the strongest poison and baits. There's no magic bullet. Instead, you must take into account how the creatures can get into a building, whether there's a food source there, and places to hide and nest. "It's evaluating, preventive maintenance, exclusion," Cappa says. "And then trapping and strategic bait placements."
Boards should be concerned about potential pest infestation and take the appropriate steps. Rats can wreak havoc on a property's infrastructure, chewing through walls, electrical wires, cable lines and pipes. They carry fleas, can spread disease, and contaminate food. Plus, no co-op or condo building wants to be tarred with a reputation as a rat hole.
How do you know if your building has rats? If you haven't seen them, look for droppings; they're capsule-shaped, blunt-ended, and up to three quarters of an inch long for adult rats. If somebody has spotted a rat in the vicinity of your building, take special note. Rats do not travel very far, sticking to within 65 feet of their burrow. In the case of Mort Berkowitz and his backyard, there have been plenty of rat sightings in the neighborhood. "Any night that trash is being put out for pickup the next day, they seem to be brazenly running about on the street," reports property manager Sam Hess of Tudor Realty. "They run out and about into peoples' service entrances. People with views onto the back get to see them out enjoying our backyard."
The building is tackling the problem on a number of fronts. They've asked their pest control company to come out to the building on a regular basis. They're no longer storing garbage only in plastic bags; now they're switched to plastic containers. And they've pressed upon their neighbors the importance of keeping garbage in tightly sealed containers instead of tossing them in piles of plastic bags in the backyard. "You've got to try and correct the environmental issues," affirms Janet Albanese, vice president of Albanese Pest Control, the Brooklyn exterminator working with the co-op. "You want to close up your surroundings more than you want to be constantly poisoning."
Inside buildings, basements are the most likely hiding places for rats and their colonies, so it's good practice to keep them clean. Gerry Fifer, board president at her 32-unit Upper West Side co-op, has been beating the drum about rats for years but hasn't had much of a receptive audience. She says she first saw there might be rats in her building a few years ago when she and some fellow board members tried to improve the building's cluttered and messy basement storage room and found droppings behind some boxes.
But only in the last few months, while cleaning out the storage room entirely, did the building discover more evidence. "Certain people who had been storing clothing and paper and books in cardboard cartons found all the stuff chewed up, " she says. "The more stuff we removed, the more evidence we found of them."
Since then, Fifer says there have been sightings, with a neighbor spotting a troupe of rats coming from the building's basement out onto the street. She's been spreading the word around the building and trying to keep the problem from getting bigger. "I want people to be aware of it and I tell people in passing, especially when they're resistant to certain changes, like redoing the storage space," she notes. "But I'm not sure that people are as alarmed as I thought they'd be. And there are kids in the building."
There are a number of factors that can attract rats to a building, according to Dr. Bruce Colvin, an international consultant on rat control who advised Boston officials during a tunnel project. "Rat problems are becoming greater issues all over the United States as urban areas age and become more congested," he says, noting that neighborhood conveniences like grocery stores and restaurants are often unwittingly feeding packs of rats. Colvin recommends examining the structure of a building and the behavior of residents. Little things make a difference, like not leaving out pet food overnight, or putting sweeps on apartment and storage room doors. Externally, overgrown shrub tightly hugging a building wall is perfect cover for rats, especially plant species like Prostate Juniper shrub.
But while cleaning things up and keeping garbage stored properly are the first steps to take, hiring a rodent control specialist can help you wipe out persistent problems. They'll be able to identify and block possible entry points, and they can lay down the traps and baits that will most effectively exterminate any rats that may be inside the building. It might not always be evident where a rat is entering, since it can squeeze through an area the size of a quarter, notes Barry Beck, president of Assured Environments. "The first line of defense is to eliminate them from coming in by sealing up access," he says. "Then you can work on the existing population that's already in."
Most pest control companies will offer a free inspection and evaluation to buildings looking to solve a rat problem. Then a contract will be structured, depending on the nature of the work that needs to be done. "Normally if you call us in and you have a problem, it's a one time job to get the place under control," Beck says. "We would recommend a maintenance service that's anywhere from once a month to once a week, depending on the needs of the building."
In choosing a pest control company, Cappa recommends asking a few key questions. Is the firm a member of the Professional Pest Control Association of New York City? Does it have a board-certified entomologist on staff? Is it fully licensed by the city? Does it provide emergency service?
Buildings with severe problems should look for specialists. Bronx-based Kojo's Pest Elimination Company takes a zero-tolerance approach to rat and mice removal, offering a six-month guarantee that client buildings will be rat-free after the work is performed. Kojo's takes an intensive approach, sometimes working with building blueprints to discover each and every possible entry. But that eradication strategy does cost more than a monthly inspection contract. "People have more tolerance than will to solve the problem," says firm principal Nana Kojo Ayesu. "It costs more dollars to solve it than to maintain it. Sometimes you can contain it, but it's not solving it."
If the empty lots or other neighboring nuisances are causing rodent problems, don't hesitate to call the city and lodge a complaint via 311. Those complaints are forwarded to the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the agency that takes the lead in inspecting rat infestations. Mayor Michael Bloomberg appears to be making the task a priority, establishing a multi-agency Rodent Control Task Force and expanding a successful integrated pest management program that had its pilot run in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn.
Still, there are plenty of critics who think the city should be doing more. "The [rat] population has always been huge," notes Beck. "Is it getting better? No. There are more areas that have problems with rats than we've experienced over the years. I don't believe that it's ever going to get better unless the city spends a lot of money going after them."