Elizabeth, a communications executive, came home to her Upper West Side co-op one evening last summer to find a note, in Spanish, from her cleaning lady. “Chinche” was all it said. That word wasn’t in Elizabeth’s limited Spanish vocabulary, so she asked the doorman to translate and learned the bad news: she had bedbugs.
From there, she says, her building’s policies took over. The doorman told the super; almost immediately, the managing agent was involved. The building had been trying to contain an infestation for a year, and the procedure was well-honed, says Elizabeth, who wouldn’t allow her full name to be used because of the stigma of the bugs – they don’t spread disease but can cause enormous itchy suffering. Her building’s model is one that other boards without a policy in place would be well-advised to follow.
Bedbugs are on an aggressive, costly advance across the metropolitan area, for reasons that aren’t altogether clear. Experts say that the problem is city-wide, although Queens and Manhattan’s West and Upper East Sides have been particularly hard hit, according to the number of renters’ complaints tracked by the New York City Department of Health.
The bugs are capable of surviving difficult conditions for inordinately long periods of time, and are easily spread: home health aides or cleaning staff can pick them up at a client’s or vice versa, children can pass them on at school, relatives can track them between homes, and they can creep into luggage even at the upscale hotels that are struggling to contain them.
The problem is exacerbated when residents throw out infested mattresses instead of just cleaning them, and they are then reused by others. A cycle of passing them on starts again, reports Louis Sorkin, an entomologist with the American Museum of Natural History.
As management companies and exterminators play catch-up, there seems little that buildings can do to prevent outbreaks. But boards are being advised by many experts to put in place aggressive policies to deal with the problem as soon as it arises, or perhaps face legal consequences if an infestation is allowed to escalate. Among the steps that boards are urged to take are to notify all owners quickly when an infestation occurs, inspect apartments adjacent to an infestation, and perform advance due diligence on exterminators.
If an infestation is to be contained, there’s little time to dither when an outbreak occurs. “It’s good to get them early,” says Sorkin. The board and management company should also check references on exterminators and have guidelines for how the exterminator must proceed, by treating adjacent rooms and undertaking the tedious job of searching out the pests using a flashlight to peer into every crevice and electrical outlet where they hide. Companies’ treatments vary widely, and straight fumigation isn’t best, because it can send the bugs to the neighboring apartments.
Many residents want to use their own exterminators, whether they know how best to treat the bugs or not, and the courts have backed them up. At an 80-unit infested Queens co-op, the board went to court to try to force the owners to use the building-appointed expert, but lost. So, the shareholders were allowed to hire their own workers. But the building tried to protect itself by insisting that the apartments be inspected afterward by the building-chosen exterminator.
As big a problem was the reluctance of the owners to move quickly to pack belongings in plastic bags so the apartment could be treated, says the board president. The tenants “had a lot of paper and books around,” weren’t young, and didn’t want to take advantage of the help offered, he says.
“A lot of the burden is on the tenant,” says the managing agent, who says it can take too long to get court-ordered permission to treat the apartment of uncooperative owners. When owners are reluctant, she says, she calls every week and sometimes gets relatives involved.
Some buildings have taken a more conservative approach, for reasons that they think are prudent. The president of the Queens co-op, who asked to remain anonymous, says his building opted to “keep a low profile” by not notifying all owners about an outbreak that started over the summer in one apartment and spread to the unit above. His board’s reasoning? “People get embarrassed,” he notes, adding that “we didn’t want to sound an alarm.”
The building’s managing agent, who also asked not to be named, has dealt with bedbugs in six of the company’s eighty buildings. She backs up her client and argues that buildings should decide whether to notify all owners on a case-by-case basis. “You don’t want to create a panic,” she says, particularly in buildings where just one or two units are affected. When an infestation at another property she manages kept growing, however, “We felt the only responsible way to handle it was to notify people.” At all her buildings, she says, there is a policy to immediately inspect apartments adjacent to the one reporting a problem.
Buildings may have valid reasons for suppressing news of infestations, but it is becoming harder to do so – which is one argument in favor of boards being upfront about a problem rather than trying to hide it. Legally, there is a controversy over whether boards should notify all owners, says Timothy Wenk, a lawyer at Shafer Glazer who specializes in bedbug litigation. “There is a stigma attached to bedbug infestation, even though it is not related to cleanliness,” he notes.
Nonetheless, he advises clients to notify other apartment owners when an infestation is found. “These little beasts are known to travel apartment to apartment,” he says, and failing to warn neighbors to be on the lookout could lead to lawsuits over the damages and unnecessary hardship caused if the bugs do spread. “I can see a jury holding one resident liable for an infestation next door,” he says. “It hasn’t happened yet, but it is a constant topic.”
Bedbugblog.blogspot.com keeps a running list of properties where residents have reported problems, as a warning to those who might unwittingly move in. Another blog, bedbugs.ning.com, has located infested buildings on an interactive Google map.
Attorney Wenk says that while there are no cases yet directly dealing with what steps a co-op or condo board can force on a unit-owner, he believes the implied warranty of habitability under Real Property Law, Section 225-b, gives co-op boards, but not condos, “a duty to eradicate the bedbug infestation” in the same way that a landlord must. As such, he says, co-ops are probably responsible for the extermination costs and also have a duty to evict an owner who doesn’t “follow instructions and coordinate with efforts to eradicate the bugs.”
In Elizabeth’s case, the building paid for the two treatments, which were done by the building’s exterminator. As embarrassed as she is about the outbreak, which she thinks came from the neighbors both next door and below, she is impressed with how the building handled it. “They are very protective about who’s got it,” she says, and the doormen aren’t allowed to gossip. Materials have been distributed under the door to keep owners aware of what to look for and the topic was discussed at the annual meeting. “They are just being very matter-of-fact about it, very professional,” she says, adding that the bedbugs “are not going to go away if you don’t treat the problem.” H