Getting bitten? Don’t be shy. It’s time to talk once again about bedbugs, those bloodsuckers from hell that are present in many homeowners’ nightmares. Although complaints about the pests have diminished, Gothamites still deal with outbreaks. Eradication can be a huge expense, and if they spread throughout the building, more than one pest control visit may be required to fully get rid of them.
The law is clear: landlords are responsible for ridding their rental tenants’ apartments of any infestations. But what about residents living in cooperative apartments or condominiums?
What responsibility would a co-op corporation or condo association have in this situation?
In the courts’ eyes, there are some key differences between co-ops and condos that could place the financial burden on the individual occupant in certain situations.
Cooperatives: Act Quickly
Co-op apartments are governed by proprietary leases, which allow the resident to occupy the apartment under a typical lease and take ownership of stock in the corporation that owns the building. Because these documents are leases, residents will be covered by the warranty of habitability (New York Real Property Law, Section 235-b), which requires rental building owners to maintain the property in a condition fit for human habitation and free of conditions that would endanger the health, life, or safety of the occupants. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the cooperative corporation to exterminate any bedbugs found in a co-op apartment.
Some proprietary leases will hold an occupant financially responsible for his or her own apartment and the corporation responsible for any common areas. In 2009, however, the court in the Zayas v. Franklin Plaza case found that even where a proprietary lease places the financial burden of extermination on an individual unit occupant, the corporation will still be fully responsible for a building-wide infestation of bedbugs. The only way in which a corporation could escape paying for the work is if an individual owner is the source of the infestation; in that case, the owner could have to pay back any costs the corporation incurs in ridding the building of bedbugs. However, this is difficult to prove.
Residents can even recover attorneys’ fees if they obtain a highly favorable judgment. But shareholders should use caution because many proprietary leases require a plaintiff to reimburse the corporation for its attorneys’ fees if the claim is denied or ruled insubstantial.
Condominiums: It’s Up to the Owner
Residents in condos, unlike those living in co-ops, hold a deed to their individual units. The Frisch v. Bellmarc Mgmt. case in 1993 ruled that the warranty of habitability does not apply to occupants of condominiums, meaning building managers or condo associations cannot be held liable for any uninhabitable or dangerous conditions within the apartment. Thus, the burden of eradicating a bedbug infestation will usually be placed on the individual unit-owner.
There are courts, however, that have been willing to place the financial responsibility on the building association when the problem involves common areas and/or building-wide maintenance issues. For example, in 1997, the court in Pershad v. Parkchester South Condominium held that the repair of water leaks because of faulty drainage pipes was the responsibility of the association, not the individual condo owner. No reported cases have directly dealt with bedbug infestations in condominiums, but the situation would arise under a similar claim that the condo association has neglected its duty to keep the dwelling in good repair under the city housing codes (Sections 27-2005 and 27-2018).
Usually, condominium boards will want to rid their buildings of bedbugs as soon as possible. Most associations do not want word of the problem to get out to prospective purchasers, nor do they want to lower morale among those already living in the building. A consistent extermination plan can rid the property of unwanted pests before any damage is done and should be pursued as soon as possible.
Reading the bylaws can help determine who should be responsible for eradication. Most importantly, if an occupant discovers bedbugs, he or she should try to determine immediately whether the problem is building-wide and put the management on notice.
City officials in New York have already taken major steps to prevent another scourge of bedbugs. The City Council recently enacted a “Notice of Bedbug Infestation History” bill that requires landlords, including those who run a cooperative building, to inform tenants of the bedbug history for the past year. For general complaints, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene provides a step-by-step enforcement protocol on its website (http://on.nyc.gov/JHO1ma) for persistent problems.
With government officials taking the problem seriously, the most important thing is that residents, owners, and building managers work together to ensure that bedbugs do not spread past the point of easy extermination.
Bite Marks and Other Myths
• Bedbugs bite only in the dark.
Although bedbugs tend to be more active at night, they can bite at any time.
• Only dirty, cluttered homes get bedbugs.
Any home can get bedbugs. The pests have been found in the homes of the wealthy and poor. Unsanitary conditions will not cause bedbugs, but getting rid of clutter will help to reduce the number of places they can live and hide.
• Bedbugs cannot be seen with the naked eye.
Bedbugs are small but can be seen with the naked eye. A magnifying glass will help. Young bedbugs 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 bedbugs.
Other insect bites may resemble those of bedbugs. Presence of live bedbugs or their eggs will confirm an infestation.
• If you have bedbugs, you need to get rid of infested clothing and furniture.
Clothing can be laundered to get rid of bedbugs. In most cases, furniture can be treated. It should be discarded only if no acceptable treatments can get rid of the pests.
Source: “Bed Bugs: Information, Resources, and Management”