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Habitat Magazine October 2020 free digital issue

HABITAT

ARCHIVE ARTICLE

Bloodsuckers from Hell

One little bug, and then a major upheaval in your life.

For me, it started a year ago, when I came home to my 22-unit Manhattan co-op to find a long-winded message on my answering machine.

“Hey, I’m just calling to tell you that, last week, we noticed we had gotten some bites, and we were concerned that we had bed bugs. We had someone come and inspect, and apparently we do have some bed bugs in our apartment. So, we are going to be taking care of it. My sister-in-law is going to be helping us out. She was there yesterday with the inspectors to look at what was going on. We do think we have bed bugs. We have them, but we’re going to take care of them as soon as possible, like next week.”

Having reported on the dangers of the little creatures in the pages of Habitat, I didn’t take the situation lightly and neither did the board, which was galvanized into action. Now, we’re a self-managed building without the resources or experience of a management firm, and we depend a lot on our veteran superintendent – and on information I’ve picked up in my reporting. So, we talked to the super – who had previously attended a bed bug seminar – alerted the tenant-shareholders, and went to schedule an inspector with a bed-bug-sniffing dog to come the very next day.

Quick response was important because the board, ultimately, has the legal responsibility to deal with this issue. Under a new protocol for issuing violations, the city now requires that if a bed bug complaint is not dealt with by the building owner, and residents subsequently report it to the city’s “311” complaint line, the owner of the property could face violations. An inspector from the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) may come by and conduct an inspection. If he or she finds bugs, the inspector will issue an HPD “Notice of Violation,” ordering that the situation be addressed.

The order outlines the steps to be followed: where bed bug infestations have been identified, the building owner must 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.

All Deliberate Speed

It’s certainly daunting – and we were proceeding with all deliberate speed when everything was turned upside down. The super, who had dealt with the same problem at another building, talked to the owner with the afflicted apartment. As president, so did I. But now he was singing a different tune. Maybe there weren’t bed bugs. Maybe they were mosquito bites. What about the inspection he had conducted? Well, the bed-bug-sniffing dog had barked at the couch, but it was now deemed inconclusive. We had the unit examined. We checked out adjoining apartments. No bed bugs were found.

On the board, we all felt relieved, as though we had escaped a bullet that had our collective name on it. In fact, we took away the wrong lessons from the experience. There was a sense that we had overreacted because of media hype.

That was a dangerous assumption to make.

Almost a year later, the same apartment reported the possible presence of bed bugs. Although alarmed, the board members were less frantic. We talked about scheduling an inspection, but before we could do that, the tenant-shareholder in the possibly infested unit reported to us that he was already taking action. At the same time that he notified the board, he also apparently had scheduled an exterminator to come in and deal with the bugs. No chemicals involved, either: he was going to put on the heat, literally. And faster than you can say, “Flame on” (or so it seemed to me), a big generator, with tubing coming into the second-floor windows, was sitting outside our building, with hot air being pumped into the apartment. Take that, you tiny scourges of Satan! You unholy bloodsuckers.

Soon afterward, at our next board meeting, we talked about this bug-frying operation, along with the resident’s report that he had gotten a clean bill of health from his exterminator. The bed bugs were apparently gone.

The board was relieved, although most of the members – remembering last year’s false alarm – were still skeptical that the bugs had been in the apartment at all. Still, we knew it was our duty to check it out, so we made one of the directors a one-man bed bug committee, and he was tasked with the assignment of getting dogs in to inspect the “subject apartment,” or “the SA,” and all the surrounding units as well.

Bugs Redux

Before any of that could be done, however, my girlfriend and I – who lived directly above the SA – started noticing itchy red welts on our arms and legs. And there were more of them every day. Hoping against hope that they were mosquito bites – we had actually seen a mosquito or two in the apartment – we were relieved when the welts seemed to stop. In retrospect, we realized that the non-appearance of new welts coincided with a cold snap that broke a heat wave, and that cold weather was just the sort of condition that would make bed bugs go undercover.

And sure enough, with the return of the heat came the return of the welts. My girlfriend began searching the apartment, and she discovered a bed bug, which she promptly Scotch-taped into place as evidence for the exterminator. When that individual arrived, he pointed out that the bug was not only female and bloated with blood but was also carrying eggs.

I was stunned. The mark of Cain (so to speak) was to be put on our heads. We were labeled as afflicted, and very shortly afterward, we were about to descend into our own personal hell. The exterminator was named Levant (I never knew whether that was his first or last name, or whether he was related to Oscar Levant), and although he was friendly and sympathetic, he was also quite blunt: the heating of the apartment below us had been a bad move. “It rarely gets hot enough to kill them,” he explained, “and they just travel up through the walls to another location.”

That would be us.

He went on to say he had no faith in bed-bug-sniffing dogs and that we would be wasting our money if we used them. “The problem is, they get fed every time they find a bed bug,” he said. “That means they have an incentive to find bugs.” Because of that, however, their accuracy was suspect. Almost apologetically, he told us what we had to do: remove every book, CD, DVD, or record and place them in air-tight, double-strength clear plastic bags. I have a lot of stuff I’ve accumulated after 25 years in the apartment. Almost everything had to be bagged and laid out on the floor for two weeks. A little plastic strip was placed in each bag, releasing fumes poisonous to the bugs (but reportedly harmless to humans).

It was horrendous. If you’ve never bagged your life, let me tell you, it’s excruciating work. Levant said it was like spring cleaning. Except it was done at the point of a gun – er, bug. Since space was limited, we were forced to throw away our couch, countless books, tapes, CDs, DVDs, and other personal memorabilia. Ultimately, I expect it will be liberating, but at the time it was just heartbreaking. And exhausting. We just kept at it for hours on hours, trying to get it all finished on the weekend. Needless to say, there were a number of emotional breakdowns along the way.

Board Bug Strategy

While this was going on, I talked with the board at various times about strategy. Based on what Levant had said, we all agreed it would be a good idea to take immediate remedial or preventive measures in our building. We sent out an e-mail, explaining the situation and requesting entry to each apartment so that we could inspect it and put down a preventive spray.

And no one responded. Even some board members were MIA.

Puzzled, I conferred with one board member who was equally mystified by this lack of concern by the residents. “I’d think there would be some sense of urgency about getting this done,” he said. I agreed. We sent out another e-mail, this time warning shareholders that, unless we heard from them by the next day, we would enter their apartments with the exterminator and the super for inspection/spraying purposes. Now we got a response.

Another issue came up: one of the shareholders – actually, the wife of a board member – was pregnant, and she was concerned, not unreasonably, about the effects of pesticides on her unborn child. This created some tension on the board as we wrestled with what was good for the building overall and what was good for the woman. Ultimately, we came to a compromise involving strong preventive measures in their apartment that did not involve spraying.

It took some doing, but we succeeded in getting all the other apartments sprayed. We then discussed the policy the board should have taken in this incident. Certainly, in the future, a firmer hand needed to be employed. And we needed to have a plan to identify and handle the bugs immediately. Clearly, letting each shareholder try and handle the issue himself or herself was not the most effective method. So we decided to train the residents in preventive work. That would ultimately be cheaper than dealing with an infestation. As it was, the cost of coping with those itty-bitty bugs was in the thousands.

A bizarre footnote to all this: as part of our post-invasion planning, the super provided a 12-page booklet about ways to cope with the bugs that we were going to copy and distribute to the shareholders. As I have done dozens of times in the past, I left the booklet – with my name clearly on it – under his doormat for another board member to review. But before he could pick it up, someone swiped it.

“That is baffling,” the director wrote to the board. “Who could have taken it?”

“Maybe it was the bed bugs,” replied another director. “They don’t want us to know their secrets.”

I could believe it.

 

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