New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community
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New city initiatives may help curb the growing bed bug problem.
The city government is striking back against bed bugs with a new information campaign, including the controversial “Bed Bug Disclosure Law.”
“London Terrace Gardens is a part of the history of New York, offering doorman living in the heart of fashionable West Chelsea,” reads the promotional literature for the massive luxury complex, part rental and part cooperative. “Enjoy the full-size indoor pool, private health club, sun deck, and beautiful garden area. The apartments feature fine hardwood floors, spacious rooms, double-glazed windows, and renovated kitchens.”
And did we mention the bed bugs?
“Almost four months ago, I got bedbugs in my apartment in London Terrace Gardens,” one resident wrote on the website Bed Bug Reports (www.bedbugreports.com). “After several treatments, they would not go away. Even though the building exterminator claimed not to see any signs of bedbugs in my apartment, I was still being [bitten]. Only at my urging, did the building inspect my neighboring apartments and it turned out my downstairs neighbor had bedbugs.”
You want more? Go to Bed Bug Reports and read some real-life horror stories: “Woke up at 2:45 A.M. with the sensation of something crawling on me,” writes one victim on the site. “Turned on the lights and found one on my shoulder, three on my legs. Pulled back the sheets and found about a dozen just wandering around on the sheets…”
If you’re nervous about bed bugs, you should be. Throughout New York City, in cooperatives and condominiums, in rentals and commercial structures, the bed bug invasion continues. In 2009, the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) received 13,152 bug infestation complaints, and HPD reports that from 2008 to 2009, bed bug complaints in New York City increased by almost 800 percent. And if you’re on the board, you cannot ignore complaints about the bugs, especially with the presence of websites that can out you.
But the city government is striking back with a new information campaign and penalties for those who don’t deal with the problem. In March, it issued new guidelines for dealing with the insects. There is also a 10-month-old “Bed Bug Disclosure” law, which some say is overkill and could have adverse effects on cooperatives, possibly hurting sales in a market that is already hurting.
The New Rules
First, the rules. Under the new protocol for issuing violations, the city will require owners and managers of properties where bed bug infestations have been identified to inspect and treat units on either side of and above and below the bed-bug-infested unit, use a licensed pest control professional to treat the infestation, and employ a variety of treatment strategies rather than depending on chemical pesticides alone. Where bed bugs persist, or occur in multiple apartments in the same building, the health department will require owners to take several additional pest removal steps (i.e., notify residents that bed bugs have been identified in the building, and develop and distribute a building-wide pest-management plan to all residents).
There are penalties for non-compliance. Building owners who are repeat offenders must have a licensed exterminator complete an Affidavit of Correction of Pest Infestation. Owners who fail to provide this will be issued a violation and be required to appear at a hearing before the city’s Environmental Control Board, where fines may be issued, and non-compliant owners may end up with liens on their buildings, which was not possible before.
Many managers say that the new push for penalties by the city is welcome but unnecessary for most co-ops and condos, which, by and large, have been coping with the bed bug problems as they come up. “It is rental landlords who drag their feet and need penalties by the city to force them to work,” says Steve Greenbaum, director of management at Mark Greenberg Real Estate. “When we hear of a bed bug infestation, we take action.”
That was the case at the 2,820-unit Penn South cooperative, a property that has its own on-site management team. In 2008, bed bugs were discovered in an apartment at the Manhattan co-op. The board and management acted swiftly, recalls Brendan Keany, the property’s general manager, cleaning the apartment and subsequently developing a program that anticipated the one currently required by city law.
Essentially, that program finds management working closely with the shareholder in the affected apartment, helping him get his clothing and bedding assembled and cleaned, and then will work with the neighboring apartments above, below, and on either side. “If it is a really bad infestation we might treat the entire floor of apartments and the floor above and below,” Keany explains, noting that they do a minimum of three treatments and a maximum of seven. Management also does preventive work in unaffected apartments.
“We recognized early on that we had to bite the bullet on this one,” explains Keany. “We’re a community and we have to deal with this. That’s a problem we can’t afford not to address. If we didn’t, it could become an epidemic.”
A side benefit of the co-op’s aggressive approach (which also included distributing information about bed bugs and having Louis Sorkin, an entomologist from the American Museum of Natural History, spend almost a full day training the staff and two board members on the insects) was that residents became more willing to report bed bugs in their apartments.
“The stigma associated with the bed bugs was gone,” Keany notes. “We told people that bed bugs don’t discriminate. Your place could be pristine and they still could come. They are not feeding off dirt; they are feeding off the blood of individuals.”
Reading, Writing, and Bed Bugs
Keany’s thoughts are echoed in the city’s education campaign. The city council is spending $500,000 on a new website and other bed bug initiatives, including retraining the city’s housing inspectors to spot the tiny creatures. The new site, “Bed Bugs: Information, Resources, and Management,” has been designed to provide co-op and condo apartment-dwellers and others with accurate and up-to-date information on how to prevent, recognize, and treat bed bug infestations (see box). And, although some managers say it does not have enough information, the site does seem to offer a great deal of useful advice, as well as web links and other data on safely eliminating them from the home.
The city’s punishment-and-education initiative will probably make a difference in the reporting of bed bug incidents. “Until people are educated about bed bugs, there will be a stigma surrounding them,” says Dan Wurtzel, president of Cooper Square Realty. “Many people saw it as an embarrassment. They thought it was like having a roach infestation, which can start because things aren’t clean. But it has nothing to do with that.”
Those erroneous beliefs have caused such problems as the improper disposal of bug-infested mattresses, bedding, and clothing, which led to the spread of the bugs. “People would try to take care of it on their own, and that led to the infestation spreading,” Wurtzel notes.
Greenbaum adds that even with education, people find that it’s hard to avoid a certain stigma associated with the bugs. He remembers leaving bed bug information pamphlets on a table in the lobby of a co-op he managed. The next time he was at the property, the pamphlets were gone. He put out more. They disappeared. But then he discovered that nobody was getting educated – because no one was reading them. “Someone was taking them and throwing them away,” says Greenbaum. “They didn’t want to advertise the fact that they have bed bugs.”
An Unnecessary Law?
The most controversial action taken against bed bugs could backfire and hurt co-ops instead. In August 2010, the state assembly passed into law a bill by Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal that required that owners disclose any history of bed bugs in a unit when a new tenant was about to sign a lease. “There is some question as to whether this law even pertains to co-ops,” says attorney Allen Turek, a partner at Turek Roth Mester. “A co-op is typically exempt from requirements for rent-stabilized housing.”
Although Rosenthal subsequently claimed her bill was aimed only at rent-stabilized apartments, the state’s Division of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR) decided otherwise. In what one attorney calls an attempt to widen its jurisdiction, the DHCR ruled that since cooperatives contained apartments with leases, they fell under the requirement, too.
“This is a stupid law,” observes Stuart Saft, a partner at Dewey & Leboeuf. “The law doesn’t make sense. You can certify that today there are no bed bugs, but tomorrow a visitor or a dog or anyone can bring one in. Every board is acting as aggressively as possible to eliminate them. The law accomplishes nothing. It doesn’t prevent bed bugs. It doesn’t tell you anything about how the building runs. It’s an attempt by politicians to look like they’re being proactive.”
Saft reports that attorneys are advising co-ops to take one of four steps in complying with the law: (1) argue that co-ops do not fall under the law and ignore it; (2) fill it out, but don’t volunteer any extra information; (3) insert the phrase “To the best of my knowledge” after the statement “There are no bed bugs”; or (4) submit the form.
“The practical effect of the law,” Saft concludes, “is that it creates a lot of concern. And knowing the bed bugs have been there can have an adverse effect on sales. But if you do nothing, and somebody moves into the apartment and gets bed bugs, and subsequently finds out that the building had bed bugs and didn’t treat them six months previously, he could sue the co-op for non-disclosure. So, you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”
Five Myths About Bed Bugs
Bed bugs bite only in the dark.
Although bed bugs tend to be more active at night, they can bite at
Only dirty, cluttered homes
get bed bugs.
Anyone can get bed bugs. Bed bugs have been found in the homes of the wealthy and poor. Unsanitary conditions will not cause bed bugs, but getting rid of clutter will help to reduce the number of places bed bugs can live and hide.
Bed bugs cannot be seen with the naked eye.
Bed bugs are small but can be seen with the naked eye. A magnifying glass will help. Young bed bugs are about the size of a poppy seed, and mature ones are about the size of an apple seed.
If I see bite marks I have bed bugs.
Other insect bites may resemble that of bed bugs. Presence of live bed bugs or their eggs will confirm their infestation in an area.
If you have bed bugs you need to get rid of infested clothing and furniture.
Clothing can be laundered to get rid of bed bugs. In most cases, furniture can be treated and should be discarded only if there are no acceptable treatments that can rid it of bed bugs.
“Bed Bugs: Information, Resources, and Management”
Five Facts About Bed Bugs
Bed bugs cannot fly and will not jump from the floor to the bed.
Bed bugs have no wings and cannot fly, jump, or hop.
Some people are not affected by bed bugs.
Some people do not have a reaction to bed bug bites and may be unaware that bed bugs are in their home until they actually see them.
Bed bugs are not known to cause or spread diseases.
Bed bugs have not been shown to cause or spread diseases. Some people will react to bed bug bites, and excessive scratching can lead to secondary infections.
Products can claim to be effective for bed bugs without proof.
Pesticides registered with the Environmental Protection Agency do have to have data to back their claims. But products without pesticides, or with pesticides that are exempt from registration requirements, may make exaggerated claims without proof. Use common sense. If it sounds like a miracle product, it probably isn’t.
Insect foggers provide very little control of bed bugs and may even cause the bed bug population to disperse, making control more difficult.
Insect foggers do not effectively control bed bugs. Insect foggers are dangerous in that they can leave unwanted residue throughout the treated area. Most insect foggers contain a flammable propellant and some have been associated with a number of fires.
“Bed Bugs: Information, Resources, and Management”
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