We know that the only way for multi-unit buildings to eliminate bed bugs (at least until the next unwitting soul brings them in) is by having a PCO who knows what they’re doing treat all affected units. In cases where there is one affected unit, all adjacent units (above, below, and on all sides) should be thoroughly inspected by a PCO who knows what they’re doing, and treated if need be. If no signs of bed bugs are present, the units should at least be monitored (by the PCO). In cases where much or all of the building is infested, the whole building must be treated at once, and treatment must be repeated every two weeks until bed bugs are gone. In addition, all tenants must cooperate with preparation for treatment (I imagine this alone is a serious problem, since some will be unwilling or unable to prepare as directed; some PCOs and landlords also don’t give any or clear enough directions). In some cases, treatment of the whole building can be done more efficiently by getting the tenants out for a day or however long is required, tenting the entire building, and treating it with Vikane gas.
Given the cost and trouble involved in getting bed bugs out of a multi-unit dwelling, we hear every week from people who live in buildings where the bed bugs are not being handled well:
My bed bugs are being treated, but a neighbor has them and refuses to report them.
My bed bugs were treated, but the bugs keep coming over from neighbors.
My landlord told me I am the only one who has bed bugs. Now, I hear a neighbor had them before me. Why isn’t he warning us?
My neighbors and I are having bed bugs treated. And yesterday I saw another neighbor pull in a bedbug-labelled mattress from the trash.
These stories are really common here and on the Yahoo Bedbugger email list (see links in sidebar). You may think it’s hopeless when you’re in a building where the bugs can just keep coming. If the landlord does not get his or her act together, you may be right.
In most cities (NYC is one), tenants do have some rights. Look in your lease: it’s likely you can’t be evicted for telling a neighbor you’re being treated for bed bugs. If the landlord ever took you to court, think how the judge would receive that as a grounds for eviction.
Make sure you have read our FAQ on laws regarding tenants, landlords, and bed bugs. If it is your landlord’s responsibility to get rid of bed bugs, and s/he does not do so, you may need to work with neighbors to pressure him or her. You may need to contact city authorities, and doing so as a group, or as a bunch of individuals, might be more effective.
I also know it can be hard to deal with organizing on any level when you’re suffering from bed bugs, but doing some organizing may make it possible for you to get rid of bed bugs in the long run. You may, at the very least, get rid of them long enough to move out without taking them with you. In some heavily-infested cities, moving from an infested multi-unit to a smaller building, bedbug-free, is not a bad plan, but you can’t move with your stuff mid-infestation.
What can you do to help fight bed bugs in your building?
Make a brief leaflet to stick discretely under neighbors’ doors. You want people to know what bed bugs are, what the signs are, how bites can look different on different people, how some people do not have itchy reactions but may have infestations all the same, how bugs can be very hard to find and catch (so spell out signs like the little black fecal specks).
Include website addresses for your city’s info on bed bugs, or that from a local university, and what your city says about landlords exterminating. Encourage people to report bed bugs to the landlord so they can get treated. If you want to organize a tenants’ group, you might include your name and apartment and phone if you want people to get in touch and are not worried about anonymity.
But, you say, “Nobugs, how can I do this? I don’t want to put my name or apartment number on this. My landlord may get angry.”
You’re right: s/he might. But you do have some rights. And if you are worried, get an email address from yahoo and enclose that, and sign “A Fellow Tenant”.
You might be braver if you’re sure another tenant (or more than one other) also has bed bugs. Your fellow tenants have a right to be warned, as you should have been. I’d be interested in hearing from people who took it upon themselves to notify neighbors, and also whether anyone has put together a tenants’ meeting, either building or community-wide.
Any other ideas for a FAQ on tenant organizing around bed bugs?
“Spread the word, not the bug.”
Update: 4th July, 2007:
If you want to read how one set of tenants organized, with a petition, check out this article. Very inspiring.
Reader Ben Cannon wrote in the forums that his landlord’s two PCO’s did not solve their building’s problems. And other tenants were affected. So here’s what they did:
[The Landlord] found two well known pco but they just didn’t do what we wanted. It was a difficult process to change pco and get all our neighbors to do the treatment together but here is how we did it:
(1) We first organized a private tenant (management was not invited) meeting in the lobby. We had to have two meetings (one on a weekday night and another on the weekend)
(2) We conducted a thorough survey of everyone’s experience
(3) We got EVERYONE to agree that all the apartments infested and adjacent/up & down neighboring infested apt must be treated at the same time.
(4) We then presented everyone with the new pco’s strategy and why we should change.
(4) After we all agreed, we wrote a detailed letter with everyone’s signatures expressing our concerns and desire to change pco.
(5) We presented this to the management company. The letter also included the dates that the pco and tenants agreed to do the services.
Management finally agreed because all of the difficult part were done for them. Yes, it was painful but completely worth it. Nothing in NYC is ever easy. Lesson here, unionize and work as a team and hire the right pco for the job – it makes all the difference in the world.