Elizabeth Jensen in Co-op/Condo Buyers
Elizabeth, a communications executive, came home to her Upper West Side co-op one evening to find a note, in Spanish, from her cleaning lady: "Chinche." That word wasn't in Elizabeth's limited Spanish vocabulary, so she asked the doorman to translate and learned the bad news: She had bedbugs. From there, her building's policies took over….
Bedbugs are a problem across the metropolitan area, according to the New York City Department of Health. The bugs are capable of surviving difficult conditions for long periods of time, and are easily spread: home health aides or cleaning staff can pick them up at a client's or vice versa, children can pass them on at school, relatives can track them between homes, and they can creep into luggage even at upscale hotels.
The problem is exacerbated when you throw out infested mattresses that are then used by others. A cycle of passing them on starts again, says Louis Sorkin, an entomologist with the American Museum of Natural History. A board need to put in place aggressive policies and not allow an infestation to escalate. It should:
• notify all owners quickly when an infestation occurs
• inspect apartments adjacent to an infestation
• perform advance due diligence on exterminators.
There's little time to dither when an outbreak occurs. "It's good to get them early," says Sorkin.
Know Your Exterminator
Your board should check references on exterminators and have guidelines for how the exterminator must proceed, by treating adjacent rooms and undertaking the tedious job of using a flashlight to peer into every crevice and electrical outlet where bedbugs hide. Companies' treatments vary, and straight fumigation isn't best because it can send the bugs to neighboring apartments.
You may want to use your own exterminator, and you have that right. At an infested 80-unit Queens co-op, the board went to court to try to force owners to use the building-appointed expert, but lost. The building did responsibly insist, however, that the apartments be inspected afterward by the building-chosen exterminator.
Unfortunately, some owners don't move quickly to pack belongings in plastic bags so that their apartment can be treated. "A lot of the burden is on the tenant," says one managing agent, who notes that by the time a board can get court-ordered permission to treat the apartment of uncooperative owners, it may be too late to stop an infestation spreading.
Conversely, boards must act responsibly and notify owners. However, the president of the aforementioned Queens co-op, who asked to remain anonymous, says his building opted to "keep a low profile" by not notifying all owners about an outbreak that started in one apartment and spread to the unit above. "People get embarrassed," he says.
The building's managing agent, who also asked not to be named, has dealt with bedbugs in six of her company's 80 buildings. She argues buildings should decide on a case-by-case basis whether to notify all owners. "You don't want to create a panic," she says, particularly in buildings where just one or two units appear to be affected.
That doesn't necessarily work: A "one or two units" infestation at another property she manages kept growing, forcing the board to finally notify everyone.
Legal Grey Area
There's legal controversy over whether boards should notify all owners, says Timothy Wenk, a lawyer at Shafer Glazer who specializes in bedbug litigation. "There is a stigma attached to bedbug infestation, even though it is not related to cleanliness," he notes. Nonetheless, he advises clients to notify other apartment owners when an infestation is found. "These little beasts are known to travel apartment to apartment," he says, and failing to warn neighbors to be on the lookout could lead to lawsuits over the damages and unnecessary hardship caused if the bugs do spread.
Wenk believes the implied warranty of habitability under Real Property Law, Section 235-b, gives co-op boards, but not condos, "a duty to eradicate the bedbug infestation" in the same way a landlord must. As such, he says, co-ops are probably responsible for the extermination costs and also have a duty to evict an owner who doesn't "follow instructions and coordinate with efforts to eradicate the bugs."
The Bedbug Blog keeps a running list of properties where residents have reported problems, as a warning to those who might unwittingly move in. Another site, Bedbug Bites, has located infested buildings on an interactive Google map.
In Elizabeth's case, the building paid for treatments by the building's exterminator. As embarrassed as she is about the outbreak, which she thinks came from the neighbors both next door and below, she is impressed with how the building handled it.
"They are very protective about who's got it," she says, and the doormen aren't allowed to gossip. Materials have been distributed under the door to keep owners aware of what to look for and the topic was discussed at the annual meeting.
"They are just being very matter-of-fact about it, very professional," she says, adding that the bedbugs "are not going to go away if you don't treat the problem."
Adapted from Habitat December 2006. For the complete article and more, join our Archive >>
Thinking of buying a co-op or condo? Already bought, and not sure how co-op/condo life and rules work? Learn all about purchasing a place and living in your new community. It's not like renting, and its not like owning a house. What's it like?