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Battling Bed Bugs

The bed bugs that recently tried to make themselves at home at one 217-unit Manhattan co-op didn’t have a prayer. That’s because the building, near Times Square, is blessed with a board of directors that didn’t hesitate when confronted with an age-old stigma that has become the city’s newest scourge.

Instead of burying its head in the sand, the board took action against the blood-sucking pests – swift, coordinated, ruthless, expensive and, in the end, effective action. And they’re not ashamed to admit it. In fact, they’re proud of it.

“We’re so proud that we’ve taken care of it and have a good maintenance program in place,” says board vice president Rose Keough, who also sits on the co-op’s Bed Bug Committee. “Because of what we’re doing, whatever happens, we’ll be able to keep it localized and deal with it.”

Every co-op and condo board in the city should take notice of what’s happening at this property, a linked trio of 10-story brick towers built in 1923 as a residence hotel. Quite simply, the board realized it didn’t have the luxury of going into denial or taking half-hearted measures. This was war.

The first alarms were sounded last spring when a shareholder alerted the board that he had bed bugs in his apartment. Assured Environments, the building’s exterminator, came in and determined that there were bed bugs in the man’s apartment, in several adjacent apartments, and in a relative’s apartment down the hall. Eventually, it was discovered that two stairwells and some of the basement storage lockers were also infested.

“We had so much to learn, it was very frustrating,” says Kit Cowan, president of the board for the past two years. “Not only about exterminators, but about how to get into apartments, what rights the proprietary lease gave us, who’s responsible for the costs.”

Who is responsible? In 2004’s Ludlow Properties v. Young case, a housing court judge awarded a rental tenant a 45 percent rent abatement because of a severe bed bug infestation in his apartment. But responsibility in co-ops and condos is a murkier legal issue. “There’s no case law involving co-ops and condos right now,” says Timothy Wenk, a lawyer with Shafer Glazer, who has been handling a mushrooming number of legal cases involving bed bugs during the past five years. “But I would recommend that boards hire a pest-control specialist once they know about a bed bug condition. Liability could fall on them if bed bugs travel between apartments.”

The board realized it didn’t have the luxury of figuring out who brought bed bugs into the building or who was responsible for getting rid of them. “It’s virtually impossible to pinpoint the source of an infestation,” says Keough. “If you wait around for that to be settled, it can turn into a massive problem.”

Dissatisfied with the progress Assured Environments was making, the board followed the recommendation of its property manager, Elliot Davis of Advanced Management Services and hired Pest Away Exterminating, a smaller company that works in concert with other companies to coordinate major assaults on bed bug infestations.

“Every building’s different,” says Jeff Eisenberg, president of Pest Away. “Our biggest strength is strategic; we look at the building as a whole. The problem was in the basement. You’ve got to plug the dam, not just keep bailing water. We laid out a plan [concerning] how that would take place.”

That multi-pronged blueprint was hammered out by Pest Away and the board, then spelled out at a building-wide meeting last September. It involved contracting with K-9 Bed Bug Detective to bring in a new bed bug-sniffing beagle named Russell; treating the insides of the infested apartments’ walls with a powder called Delta Dust (deltamethrin); heating cracks and crevices to 285 degrees, then treating them with a chemical “cocktail”; and packing everything in the basement storage lockers in air-permeable containers.

Two porters and a security guard were hired to make sure the packing was done properly and the basement quarantine not breached. The containers were then removed by a company called Moving Right Along, which placed them in fumigation vaults and transported them to its facility in Ozone Park, Queens. There, Bed Bugs and Beyond Fumigation Specialists treated them with sulfuryl fluoride, commonly known as Vikane. Meanwhile, the empty basement storage rooms were treated with heat and repeatedly vacuumed.

Once all items and the building were declared bed bug-free, the items were moved back in. New rules for the storage bins, hammered out with the co-op’s lawyer, were prominently posted. Every item in all 81 bins must be double-wrapped in air-tight plastic or placed in a plastic bin with an air-tight gasket. No exceptions. Russell, the beagle, now visits once a week. He’ll check every apartment three times a year to make sure the scourge has not returned. The total cost to the co-op so far has been about $250,000, which came from the reserve fund and the sale of three apartments that the co-op took over during the S&L crisis in the 1990s.

“If we let those bugs move into this building, it’s going to cost us way more than the money we’re currently spending,” says Keough. “Until they come up with a cure for bed bugs, it’s just pro-active vigilance. As of this moment, we have no bed bugs.”

Cowan quickly raps the wooden table with a knuckle. Then, addressing one of the most stubborn – and erroneous – myths about bed bugs, he adds, “If your building has bed bugs, it doesn’t mean you’re dirty. It means you’re unlucky.”

Ben Weisel opened Metro Pest Control in the 1970s, during that dark age when President Gerald Ford was telling a financially hobbled New York City to, in so many words, drop dead. Back then, there were plenty of pests to keep Weisel’s exterminators hopping: cockroaches, termites, carpenter ants, mice, rats, and water bugs. But not bed bugs.

“They were pretty well wiped out,” says Weisel, now 67 and semi-retired. Much of the credit for their scarcity goes to DDT, Weisel says, a pesticide that was widely used during and after World War II, later vilified by Rachel Carson, and finally banned in the U.S. in 1972 because of environmental concerns. Only recently did bed bugs begin making an unwelcome return to New York City.

“What happened,” says Weisel, “was that people started traveling to Europe and a lot of Third World countries and bringing bed bugs and eggs back with them. The population started exploding about eight years ago.”

Today, Metro Pest Control gets a staggering 150 calls a month to treat bed bugs. The problem has become so severe city-wide that Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently created a 10-member Bed Bug Advisory Board and gave it nine months to produce recommendations on dealing with infestations in residences and institutions; disposing of infested items such as clothing and furniture; and creating a list of rights and responsibilities for landlords, tenants, and homeowners.

Information about bed bugs is becoming more plentiful and easier to find. The Bed Bug Registry, for instance, has a detailed website (www.bedbugregistry.com) that offers a report of bed bug infestations in hotels and apartment buildings across North America.

One, located on Avenue D in Manhattan, offers these words of wisdom from an exasperated tenant named Anit: “The bed bugs came because a tenant on the fifth floor went camping, brought them home with her and decided not to mention anything to her roommates or the super for three weeks, even after having noticed them. Bed bugs are an unfortunate reality here in the city. It helps when people are pro-active about taking care about them.”

Right you are, Anit. In fact, pest control experts will tell you that the worst thing you can do after sighting bed bugs is to procrastinate or go into denial. Since a female bed bug can lay up to 500 eggs during her lifetime – and since the eggs hatch after incubating for one to three weeks – a co-op or condo board needs to take prompt and forceful action as soon as there’s a bed bug sighting in the building.

It’s a jungle out there. So, watch your back. Literally.

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