I always rant and rave about the absurdity of New York City officials basing their statistics of the incidence of bed bugs in NYC on the number of people who call 311 to report bed bugs as a housing violation.
Here is my rant on NYC statistics, for those who have not read it before. (Everyone else, skip down past this block quoted section!)
The city says approx. 4600 called to complain about bed bugs and approx. 1190 had bed bug violations in the period from Summer 2005 to Summer 2006. These statistics are often cited in the media as evidence the bed bug problem is not that big.
As I’ve said many times before, we know the number of infestations must be much larger, since just after the time frame in which those 311 stats were added up, local PCO Pest Away claimed to be getting 100 calls a day, of which 85% were legit bed bug cases, in a Village Voice article last year.
As I speculated then, 85 cases, x 5 days a week x 52 weeks a year, and that’s one local PCO identifying 20,100 cases in a year. Though this is a particularly large PCO, there are hundreds and hundreds of other PCOs treating for bed bugs in this city. Clearly those 311 numbers are far from the size of the epidemic, and that’s even after we account for homeowners and those in public housing, neither of which would call 311 to report bed bugs.
There endeth today’s rant.
The most obvious evidence, for me, that the vast majority of people with bed bugs in NYC do not follow this route is based on our readers who email me or who comment here and in the forums. My generous estimate is that the percentage of tenants with bed bugs in NYC who call 311 and report it is under 5%. If I were a betting gal, I’d put money on that.
We hear from several new Bedbugged New Yorkers every day. Since October, when the site was born, only a handful of people have told us they called 311. (Several of those have said they called 311 and had been given the runaround, or had not been sent an inspector. One person reported the inspector came but would not enter the home. The other day someone said the 311 receptionist simply told him/her to wash their clothing and sheets carefully. Um, thanks Mayor Bloomberg.) We have a FAQ on what is supposed to happen when you call 311, based on research I did, but it would be great to hear from more people who did it.
A reader going by the moniker “realitybites” is a New Yorker who did call 311 recently. S/he only did so because his/her landlord was refusing to treat properly. I asked his/her permission to repost this from our forums, since it is such an interesting story. Six days ago, realitybites wrote:
I recently found bedbugs (caught one off the bottom of my mattress with a piece of scotch tape.) Called in a PCO immediately, very professional, friendly. I found out while waiting for him that my neighbors all have them, and that my super (!) has complained numerous times to the landlord who refuses to do anything. I called 311 to report building is infested. Got into a big argument with landlord about hiring a PCO for the whole building. He said absolutely not, never. I told him I called 311. That got him about as far as telling the other tenants to throw out their mattresses and get some bug spray. (He told them he would reimburse them for the bug spray, how generous!)
Yesterday (five days later), realitybites gave an update:
An update on this story. After the landlord received the official acknowledgment of complaint from the city, he went through several reactions. He was angry, tried to make me feel guilty for reporting the infestation, tried to tell me it wasn’t his problem because it wasn’t his fault. He told me I had “no right” to report on him.
This isn’t going to sound like a true story after this, but it is. After several angry confrontations, he came to my apartment the other day. He said he wanted to see “evidence.” I showed him the bugs I had caught and taped to a piece of paper. Then he told me he would pay for the exterminator I called, and also retain him to treat the entire building. Then he started asking me questions like, “so what does it feel like when you get bitten?” and “how did you find them?” and so on.
Then he confessed he was afraid HE MIGHT HAVE THEM TOO. (He lives in a different borough.) I am glad he came around, not sure if it was because of the city’s pressure or his own worries (did he carry the infestation to his home because he didn’t treat our building?–something for landlords to think about.)
While few landlords are likely to “see the light” to this degree, and this swiftly, it is important to remember that landlords, too, are caught off guard by bed bugs. They, too, are victims of this epidemic, and in many cases, they stand to lose a lot financially because of them, just as tenants do.
The first response of many people to the idea of spending lots of money to treat a problem you never heard of before, or which many people assume is not a big deal, is to be evasive. Another is to panic. (We know many tenants panic, and so why not landlords who have to treat entire buildings?)
Once landlords understand what a big deal this is, they may well come around. As awful as it can be to go through treatment, a smart businessperson will realize they have to be aggressive in treating bed bugs. Treating all infested units, and inspecting, and preferably treating all units adjoining infested units (top, bottom, sides), is the best way to get this problem out of your building. And yes, they can come back.
Therefore, smart landlords will want to provide educational materials to tenants about the signs of bed bugs. It is a great idea for landlords to get a local community organization (maybe a local city council member, or community agency) to host a meeting where a PCO who knows bed bugs can speak to tenants about behavior which may lead to repeat infestations: shopping in secondhand stores and flea markets, picking up furniture or other items from the curb, and traveling without taking certain precautions, all make this easier.
Most of all, tenants need to know the signs. Those who never saw a bed bug, a bed bug bite, a fecal speck or fecal stain, egg, or cast off shell, need to learn the signs, as well as the basic facts about bed bugs (the main one being that you may have bed bugs even if you never see or feel any bites).
Until the City of New York wises up about the real size of this problem, and starts providing more public education of its own, it is up to the rest of us–tenants and landlords too–to (in the words of Bugalina) “Spread the word, not the bug.”