As New Yorkers know, if you have bed bugs in NYC, you have the option of calling 311 (the city information hotline) and filing a complaint about bed bugs in your rental unit. An inspector from the Housing and Preservation Department (HPD) will come to your home to inspect. More on that in a moment.
But why don’t people call 311?
Although technically anyone who is a renter and has bed bugs can do it, most people don’t. Why? Well, most of us are used to calling our building managers, superintendants, etc. when a problem of any kind arises. It even seems like the courteous thing to do–to tell the landlord, rather than simply ratting them out. And so most of us would only report bed bugs in our homes if the landlord has been notified by us and is either doing nothing, or slow to take action, or taking action which is not solving the problem.
We have not had a lot of reports from readers who called 311–in fact I can remember a couple in hundreds and hundreds of readers who described their NYC bed bug sagas on the site, the yahoo group, or the forums. This is merely one reason why I insist that NYC has far, far more bed bug cases than the “official” tally the city produces. The city is basing its sense of the scope of the city’s bed bug problem only on renters who call 311, which is why they report fewer than 4600 complaints and over 1100 actual cases in fiscal year 2005-2006. These figures leave out renters who complain to landlords directly (which I would venture is the vast majority), all tenants of NYCHA (public housing) buildings, who are supposed to call their building staff (not 311), all co-op and condo and other homeowners, and residents of hospitals, college dorms, in addition to hotels and hostels.
Leaving aside for a moment the need for tenants’ cooperation with treatment (which is vital), many tenants have landlords that do not do anything, take half-arsed steps (for example, inspecting and treating only the “complainer’s” unit), or hire PCOs who do not solve the problem (either because they don’t know what to do, or in many case because the landlord won’t authorize and pay them to do everything they need to, like come multiple times, or treat multiple units). And even when this is the case, and treatment does not occur or fails, it seems like most people still won’t follow up with 311. We hear that for many it’s due to fear of getting a bad reference when they next move (and let me tell you, at this point, they usually really want to move.)
I wish the city had some way of collecting data on infestations that could record every infestation. It need not be terribly complicated (for example, as Toronto did in 2003, they could require PCOs to disclose locations of all treated homes to the city). If this were implemented, we’d know how big the problem really is, and maybe the city would have to do more to help fight bed bugs. Ah, maybe that’s why the City of New York doesn’t want to know how many people really have bed bugs!
Anyway, what happens when you call 311 to report bed bugs?
I have obtained some reliable information on this.
When you call 311, the HPD will let the owner of the building know of the complaint and assign it a number.
An HPD inspector will come to your home.
S/he’ll check key areas where bed bugs may be hiding, but s/he won’t touch or remove any of your stuff. S/he may ask you to move things, lift cushions, blankets, etc.
If the home has evidence of a bed bug infestation, the inspector will issue a violation, but s/he won’t do this based on bites, on the basis that you may have been bitten elsewhere. They also cannot diagnose based on the smell (which is probably a good thing, since so few people claim to have smelled “the bed bug smell”).
The bed bug violation is based on Administrative Code section 27-2017 (which related to owner’s responsibility for keeping homes free of certain insects including bed bugs). The owner will have 30 days to correct the problem, and they have to certify that it’s been corrected two weeks after the 30 days are up. They may ask for 30 days more. (This is reasonable, since bed bugs usually take three or more treatments).
Here’s where it gets interesting: if there are several infested apartments in the building, HPD sends the violation to the Department of Mental Health and Hygiene (DOHMH), and DOHMH issues an “Order to Abate.” This orders the landlord to deal with the problem throughout the building.
I am really not sure what this means in practice, but it suggests that if you have bed bugs in NYC, and your landlord is not treating them swiftly, or thoroughly, then it might be in your interest to not only call 311, but ensure other infested tenants do too. It might be well worth your while to talk to others at length about bed bugs and the signs of them (besides bites, which many people with bed bugs apparently do not suffer from). Because if you are going the 311 route, and the inspectors find bed bugs in several units, the problem may well be addressed more thoroughly and more swiftly. I’d love to hear from people who networked with fellow tenants in this way.
I also have some concerns about the actual inspections. We have heard many stories of well-experienced PCOs who’d treated many bed bug cases, and still often find it challenging to locate bed bugs. Parakeets recently attended a bed bug conference where the story was shared that multiple experienced bed bug PCOs could not find the bed bugs they knew for a fact were in a particular room. Knowing that a careful inspection can take a lot of time (and might require the inspector to actually touch things himself or herself), I am concerned about how thoroughly HPD’s bed bug inspections are carried out.
I hope that the HPD is making sure its inspectors are being trained on subtle signs of bed bugs (like the “poppy seed” fecal specks, and tiny or larger blood spots on sheets–which can be a pinprick where you bled, or a bed bug sized one where a bug was squashed). This is important, since many people do not see bed bugs or do not see them often, no matter how many times they overturn their mattresses, part their sofa cushions, or fling back the sheets. It stands to reason that housing inspectors are probably trained to recognize the most obvious signs (as PCOs without bed bug experience doubtless are)–the classic fecal stains on a mattress, fecal stains on a headboard, actual bed bugs clinging to a mattress–the signs we see on websites in photos.
Click to see the host of University of Kentucky entomologist Michael Potter’s photo: the Purdue University page on bed bugs
Ask around on Bedbugger and you’ll find out that in so many cases, our mattresses did not look “like that.” Our sofas did not look “like that.” We don’t find insects hanging around in daylight and we don’t know why they’re called “wall lice” since we don’t see them scurrying or hanging around. Many do, but it is not the majority in my experience. We go to dermatologists because we don’t know we have bed bugs for a very long time. Those who are allergic are in many cases going to file a complaint long before signs are obvious or visible without a whole lot of searching.
I’d welcome your thoughts on the HPD process as described above. If you filed a complaint with 311, please tell us what happened. If you didn’t, tell us why not. Let’s make a statement here about what’s wrong with this system. Of course, if you feel like it worked for you, I’d love to know that too!