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Bed Bugs: New Scourge of the Poor?

posted on Wed, Aug 24 2011 9:51 am by Denise Chrysler

Last month, the Network became aware of a man living in an apartment building that was infested with bed bugs. The building – owned by the city housing commission – was home for low-income residents. For two months, he repeatedly reported bed bugs to the building management and contacted government regulators and the press. Yet nothing was done. There are bed bugs throughout the building so his next idea was to organize residents to push for management to eliminate the problem. His rent was subsidized by HUD so he could not afford to live elsewhere. While the city housing commission had a second subsidized apartment building, it had a waiting list. Plus, it also had bed bugs! The Network contacted the "bed bug expert" at the man’s state health department, who in turn contacted the HUD regional office. The Network also provided information about two tenant organizations that had assisted public housing residents in a nearby city to organize and obtain effective responses. Since this was city-owned housing, another avenue was for this man to contact his representative on the city council. The man e-mailed a few days later to report that his apartment unit had been scheduled for chemical treatment, although he was not hopeful that this response would be effective.

I met with Erik Foster, entomologist for the Michigan Department of Community Health, about the impact of bed bugs on poor people and strategies to obtain effective response to infestations. I have paraphrased some of Erik’s comments below.

Bed bugs affect people in all types of housing and at all income levels. However, the bugs may have a disproportionate impact on poor people. Bed bugs are great hitchhikers, which means the more people who move in and out of housing, the greater the opportunities for them to hitch a ride in. Obtaining or purchasing used mattresses or furniture increases the potential for unwelcome pests. Higher density housing means more apartment units that might be affected and need treatment. Erik cautioned that these are his impressions: there is no official reporting or registry for bedbug infestations, nor are there other reliable sources of data regarding the incidence or severity of bed bug infestations by housing types or other characteristics.

Tenants who contact management may face the “blame game.” Some landlords accuse tenants of bringing in bed bugs. Under law and leases, tenants are usually responsible for maintaining their units in a safe and sanitary condition. Thus, landlords may insist that tenants pay treatment costs for their units or threaten eviction. This is unfair: bed bugs could be introduced by anyone who enters the building. No one is immune from transporting these pests from place to place. Tenants might be forced to dispose of their beds and other furniture or possessions – a move that may be unnecessary and cause great hardship for people who already have little money. Early detection is essential to effective treatment. Stigma, blame, potential loss of possessions and threatened eviction do little to encourage tenants to report infestations when they are easier to manage.

A few states and local governments (such as New York City) have passed laws that cover bed bugs. In an earlier blog, I discussed laws that do not address bed bugs per se that can provide authority for action when a state lacks a relevant bed bug-specific law. The Michigan Manual for the Prevention and Control of Bed Bugs identifies examples of these kinds of laws regarding housing, accommodations and consumer goods. While there is legal authority, Erik finds that agencies often lack the will to use their authority. Reasons include:

  • Bed bugs are not considered a serious public health problem by some public health departments; thus, addressing them is not a priority;
  • Agencies lack resources – staff and funding – to educate on prevention and to respond to complaints;
  • Absent a clear legal mandate specifically directed to an agency, an agency may not consider bed bugs its responsibility.

Thus, to be used, laws must be specific, directive and have resources allocated for implementation. They also need to be evaluated for effectiveness.

Finally, Erik explained: “Bed bugs are like a communicable disease that spreads from person to person. They are environmentally communicable – spreading from place to place.” Like disease, they cause great suffering and must be addressed by the entire community as a public health issue. Resources and education are key. Like disease outbreaks, we must dispel myths and stigma. We must explain how they spread, teach prevention measures and surveillance techniques for early detection, and urge community-wide efforts to stop them. Once in a building, eradication requires a group effort of owners, management and tenants to break the cycle of re-infestation.

A few recent developments may provide some hope for low-income housing residents:

  • At least two HUD offices have issued memoranda to owners and management agents stating that bed bug infestation is not grounds for termination of tenancy and that an owner/agent may not charge a tenant to cover the cost of bed bug extermination. (Memoranda of Chicago and Ohio Multifamily Hubs). (March-July 2011)
  • The EPA has awarded five grants for bedbug education, outreach and environmental justice projects targeting poor communities. (April 2011)
  • HUD issued Guidelines on Bed Bug Control and Prevention in HUD Insured and Assisted Multifamily Housing, which includes strategies for preventing bed bugs, protocols for responding to bed bug complaints, the roles and responsibilities of owners/agents and tenants and use of reserves to fund eradication. (August 16, 2011).
  • HUD has funded training on the use of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) in multi-family dwellings.

A year or so ago, a New Yorker cartoon showed bedbugs on a mattress floating toward Manhattan for a “vacation.” Let’s hope that public health laws and agencies can force these bugs to take a permanent vacation!

This information was developed by Denise Chrysler, director for the Network for Public Health Law – Mid-States Region at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. She previously served as public health legal director to the Michigan Department of Community Health’s Public Health Administration, where she provided legal advice on a variety of public health issues, including bed bugs.

The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.

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