When her apartment was infested with bedbugs, a co-op shareholder spent several thousand dollars having them exterminated. Now, a year later, the co-op board is updating its proprietary lease so that treatment of bedbugs is entirely the responsibility of residents. Does a board have the power to do that?
It's complicated, replies the Ask Real Estate column in The New York Times. New York City tenants, including shareholders in co-ops, are entitled to live in apartments free of bedbugs and other vermin, and co-op boards are legally obligated to exterminate bedbug infestations and prevent them from returning. However, the rules don’t say who has to pay for the treatment. The city gives co-op boards and landlords 30 days to deal with the issue. The co-op is also required to file an annual report with the city and provide residents with a written notice of the building’s bedbug history, including disclosure of any infestations within the past year.
Bedbugs are specifically named in the list of insects that building owners are legally required to eradicate. New York City lists bedbugs as a Class B violation, meaning they are considered hazardous. “The co-op is in the best position to handle a building-wide infestation,” says Lisa Smith, a partner in the law firm Smith, Gambrell & Russell. The board can call a qualified professional who can treat the affected unit and inspect neighboring ones. “The neighbors are not going to do that among themselves,” Smith adds.
Treating the infestation is one thing; paying for it is another. The board could foist that bill onto shareholders. Most co-ops and landlords pay for extermination costs, while tenants pay for the costs associated with preparing their apartments for extermination and containing the infestation. “The real cost is the prep,” Smith says. Tenants, for example, often replace mattresses and sofas, and dry clean and wash all their clothes and linens.
Under city and state housing rules, the board cannot abdicate its responsibility to exterminate bedbugs by modifying its proprietary lease. It can pass extermination costs along to shareholders, but shareholders can push back by arguing that passing along costs to them could be counterproductive. Those costs are not extraordinary for a building, but they may be large enough to stop an individual shareholder from coming forward about an infestation inside her apartment. Bedbugs love it when that happens.
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