New Yorkers: what happens when you call 311 with a bed bug complaint?

by nobugsonme on July 26, 2007 · 17 comments

in 311, activism, bed bug detection, bed bugs, best practices, government, housing laws, new york, signs and symptoms of bed bugs, usa

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!

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1 James Buggles July 26, 2007 at 4:18 pm

I called in October 2006 to find out where I could get a specimen identified. I was transferred to several people, none of whom had any training regarding bedbug calls that I could detect. I don’t even think they knew what a bedbug was. In the end, no one could provide any assistance. I hope the training there has improved.

2 hopelessnomo July 26, 2007 at 6:43 pm

30 days (plus another 30) is a lifetime if the landlord is bent on dragging.

I also think it’s easy for landlords to retaliate by not renewing leases, threatening investigations, etc. Honestly, I think an HPD complaint is beyond the realm of possibility for many, especially in NY, the land of illegal sublets and other irregular situations.

I suspect the HPD complaint route inevitably leads to housing court.

3 kurtck177 July 26, 2007 at 7:06 pm

I called 311 — mostly out of a sense of duty. I was already giving up and moving, but I wanted my infestation counted, and I wanted to start a paper trail for my friends in the building, in case they needed it. The 311 experience was so frustrating I’m loathe to dredge it up and repeat it here. Suffice it to say, the people answering the 311 line were cheery and seemingly helpful, but once the complaint got past them, into the system and to the HPD, it turned into the typically absurd New York bureaucratic nightmare. I moved before anything came of it. I can’t imagine having to rely on 311 or HPD to get the problem solved.

4 James Buggles July 26, 2007 at 7:37 pm

kurtck177, thank you for jogging my memory. Yes, 311 transferred me to the housing department which then transferred me to the health department which then transferred me back to the housing department, etc.

5 kurtck177 July 27, 2007 at 3:09 pm

Yes, it went something like this: The 311 operator told me that I would hear from an inspector in 48 hours, and that a letter would be sent both to my landlord and myself, acknowledging the complaint. I got the letter a few days later, and I assume the landlord also got a copy, because his nephew, who lived across the hall, sent me an email about it, threatening to take me to housing court. The inspector, however, called a full 7 days later (that would be 168 hours), at 6:10 on a Friday evening (the last time I would expect a city employee to call) and left no message. Apparently he/she was at the building, ready to inspect? What, they don’t call ahead? Of course I was at work and could do nothing about it.

So I called 311 back, and they told me to call HPD, the Brooklyn inspector, to reschedule. I must have tried 8 to 10 times, for several days, and the phone would just ring and ring, then finally go dead, to a dial tone. Not even a message telling you to call back later, etc. I called 311 again. They told me to try HPD again. Eventually, randomly, I got through. The person who answered told me that she could do nothing, because my complaint was not in the system. I told her it must be in the system, because I had already received a letter, and the people at 311 were recognizing that an inspector had tried for access but failed. She said no, it wasn’t in the system and I had to call back later. She said she could do nothing right now — not even schedule an appointment (?) — because the inspector was out on another call. I felt like I was being given the runaround. I tried calling the inspector again, and the phone rang and rang, then the dial tone again.

So I called 311 again. They asked me, rather than chasing the original complaint, would I just like to file another one? So I said sure, whatever, and a few days I got another letter acknowledging the second complaint.

I say complaint, but I don’t even know if my calls registered as anything, because from what I understand, an inspector has gain access and validate the complaint before a violation can be issued.

I never got a call from the inspector, or anybody, about the second complaint. Keep in mind that you give them your phone number. In this case, my cell. I’m easy to reach. At the very least, they could leave a message.

Then I got a letter referring to the first complaint, saying that the inspector had tried to gain access, but couldn’t, and that he/she had left a letter for me at the building, telling me of this. No letter was ever left. I know my landlords were aware of the problem, and my intention of calling the city, but I can’t imagine them tampering with the mail or a left document. Again, why didn’t the inspector call ahead to arrange the visit? At least give me a couple of hours warning? They just drop by? On a Friday night at 6:10?

The letter recommended what to do next, but at that point I was ready to move, and I did nothing to follow up.

It became apparent to me that to deal with the runaround, one had to 1) not have a job, so they could be home all day; 2) be prepared to do a lot of chasing on the phone.

I still have the letters at home. I’ll check to see if there’s anything in them worth publishing here.

I may have left out some back and forth — I tried putting the whole thing out of my head. It colored my perception of the Bloomberg administration — I always thought he was a “get things done” kind of guy, but I have a feeling all these initiatives are superficial. If you call 311, you will always get a helpful operator. But if you try to move beyond that? Forget it. The usual bureaucratic mess.

6 kurtck177 July 27, 2007 at 3:12 pm

Oops, rereading my post, I realize there’s a miscalculation: 7 days later is actually 168 hours. Still… It’s more than 2 days.

The whole thing gives me a headache.

7 July 28, 2007 at 12:42 am

Hey it’s PissdinAstoria,
My landlord treated twice, and said there’d be a 3rd. But when I called him about the 3rd treatment, he yelled at me and hung up in my face. I called 311 and an inspector actually showed up…only he showed up during work hours! It was a really awkward time frame for me b/c (I actually got a green notice on my door unlike the post above) was like, if we don’t hear from you in 10 days, then we assume the problem is fixed. But after hearing from the city (they called the landlord about 30 minutes after I called them) he scheduled a PCO visit which was then canceled and rescheduled. The PCO didn’t even treat b/c the landlords aren’t required to treat if you don’t see live bugs and you aren’t getting bitten. And like the original post says, they inspectors don’t touch anything…so they wouldn’t have found anything here.

So, by the time all that happened, my 10 days were up, and I didn’t really know what my next steps were. I am still certain this building has bugs, but I can’t prove it. And I feel sorry for the next person who moves in because the landlord isn’t the only crazy ass in the building. The neighbors go along with whatever he says.

It’s almost sad (ok it’s really sad to say), but people who have allergic reactions to them are better off. At least there is SOMETHING to work with.

8 July 28, 2007 at 12:47 am

OH (pissd again)

my landlord also decided to not renew my lease. and if any of you are worried about bad references…they don’t exactly want you in the building. so they’ll gloat about you to put you off on another landlord.

9 nobugsonme July 28, 2007 at 11:21 pm

Hmmmm… So when the city housing inspector plans to visit, they leave a green notice on your door, in plain sight, after letting the landlord know you called.

I would not be at all surprised if Kurt’s green notice were left but taken by his landlord before he could see it. I am not saying HPD came, but come on, this is a ridiculous system! Lots of landlords would remove it, especially if they know your general work schedule (many supers notice this sort of pattern of coming and going), and if they also knew how HPD worked (ie they notify landlord, they post notice on door, they come during work hours.)

Thanks to all for these responses. I hope others will see this and let us know their experiences too. I also hope some of you will follow up by complaining. This system is bad for so many reasons, and it needs to be changed. As crappy as it is, there’s a separate system for lodging complaints about the way reports are handled. I hope many will call 311 again and find out how to lodge one.

10 Jessica July 30, 2007 at 4:59 pm

Any help for OHIO????? I have recently been invaded by bed bugs. Live in West Chester, Ohio. I contacted the local county health department looking to make a complaint. They have had SEVERAL complaints about bed bugs in my complex. But there are no punishments for my landlord. All the health department will do is come inspect MY unit. I know what MY unit looks like! I have everything in plastic garbage bags desperately trying to save my belongings from the dumpster! What I want is my landlord to be forced to treat the entire building, not just the units that complain about bites. I have minor minor infestation, and my daughter has 56 bites all over her body. I have had one treatment so far and I have been finding more and more live bed bugs. Any help for Ohio would be much appreciated.

11 Bugalina July 30, 2007 at 10:13 pm

Jessica Have you gone onto the forums? Click onto the Big Blue Bug on the upper rgt. corner of the home page and click onto Forums….there you can start a new thread and ask about any help in Ohio….and any other questions you might have. There are FAQ’s you must read. I am very sorry for you. Your landlord should treat the entire bldg. Keep making noise. The squeaky wheel gets the oil so keep complaining, and 56 bites on your daughter sounds like enough to make complaints or even contact an attorney…

12 nobugsonme July 31, 2007 at 11:45 am

Jessica,

I would not assume you have a minor infestation based on how many bed bugs you’ve seen.

Do you know for a fact that other tenants are experiencing bites or seeing bed bugs? We have a FAQ on tenant organizing that might help you work with others who live there to educate everyone on the signs of bed bugs (remember, many are not allergic and do not feel or see bites on themselves, even if bitten). You should try to educate neighbors and work together. Maybe you can pressure the landlord along with fellow tenants.

As far as the city’s laws, I have not heard of any city forcing a landlord to treat an entire building–though if enough units are infested, a sensible landlord would probably do so.

13 Jessica July 31, 2007 at 11:55 am

The thing that really made me mad was when I showed my property manager the bed bug I found, she said “wow, this one is mature, you must have brought it in from somewhere” when at that same exact moment, the exterminator was in my building treating another apartment for bed bugs. When I told her I knew he was there right now, she said that certain apartment is “an entire concrete wall system away” meaning there was a fire wall. But that was also not really true, there are doors and plaster walls, the concrete wall is not even really a fire wall seeing as it is not completely seperating the building.

I was thinking the same thing today, that maybe I should go door to door and see how many tenants I can get to back me up on treating more than the infested apartments. I hate to even remotely sound like a bigot, but most of the tenants are french speaking africans, and hispanics, I dont know how I will make them understand the bugs are not ok to live with. Maybe I should ask for help from the semi-english speakers first, then I will have help translating!

14 nobugsonme July 31, 2007 at 12:47 pm

Jessica,
I doubt the non-English speaking folks in your building think that bugs are “ok to live with”.

They may not know much about bed bugs (especially if they’ve been in the US a while) because bed bugs are coming back everywhere. But they may also lack information on bed bugs, since they may not be getting the news reports English-speakers see. You should print out some of the Spanish FAQs which may help. And maybe a volunteer will come forward to do some French translations too.

The other issue you should be aware of is this: we have heard that if some landlords will use bed bugs as a reason to call the immigration department. Depending on your fellow tenants’ status, this may be a fear. There may be good reasons they don’t feel they can report things to the landlord. And the landlord may be enforcing a culture of fear in such cases. It’s worth being aware of that.

If the apartments share a common entryway and a common hallway, or even a common pipe system, then you can certainly share bed bugs regardless of the concrete wall.

15 brendapacheco April 23, 2008 at 4:49 pm

iam living in a housing shelter in mt.vernon been living here for three months my kids has bites all over there body. they wake up in the morning with swalling lips and swalling eyes. its to a point that I tell them to come and check inside the mattresses and they dont do anything about it my kids is still getting bitten by this bed bugs and somebody needs to do something about this problem that everybody in this place is getting bitten we tell them to get new furniture in this place it is infected so please help me and others thank you:>

16 nobugsonme April 23, 2008 at 10:17 pm

brenda,

Please repost your message in the forums. It is off topic here (since this thread is about New York City) and you will get more responses in the forums.

Click the “forums” button at top right on this page.

Thanks!

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