The city's punishment-and-education initiative will probably make a difference in the reporting of bedbug incidents. "Until people are educated about bebugs, 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 bedbug 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 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 bedbugs."
An Unnecessary Law?
The most controversial action taken against bedbugs could backfire and hurt co-ops instead. In August 2010, the state assembly passed into law a bill by Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal (D/WF – 67th District) that required that owners disclose any history of bedbugs 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 Homes 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 bedbugs, 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 bedbugs. 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:
"The practical effect of the law," Saft concludes, "is that it creates a lot of concern. And knowing the bedbugs have been there can have an adverse effect on sales. But if you do nothing, and somebody moves into the apartment and gets bedbugs, and subsequently finds out that the building had bedbugs 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."
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