New Yorkers: a real-life “I called 311 to report bed bugs” story

by nobugsonme on August 29, 2007 · 6 comments

in bed bug detection, bed bugs, curbside, dumpster diving, government, history, housing laws, legal aspects of bed bugs, misinformation

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.”

1 bugalew August 29, 2007 at 12:14 pm

As mentioned in my “Tale of Woe”, I called 311 on 8/9. Described my bites after 3 bad nights and was told they were probalby mosquito bites. As I’ve ranted here recently-I’m 46 w/9 summers at summer camp and a summer in Scotland under my belt. I know from mosquito bites. I said to the guy-My screens are closed. These are not mosquito bites. These feel like scorpions and it’s actully painful. He said “huh. I’ve had something going on in my house. I should rethink it.” I was then told to wash my clothes in hot water. End of call. 311 or something like it should be the first line of defense in spreading the word. The lost money and time are factors in how I continue to treat this and keep it from spreading. My further reluctance in pursuing this with the city is that Iam the one who brought the critters in. I moved into this legal rent stabilized sublet on 8/1 in my moving boxes (ok-90% sure of it). My landlords have been on vacay til now. They did the stand up and smart business thing by calling a PCO in right away.
A close friend of mine outside of Cincinnatti called me yesterday. (yes I have a friend in Northern Kentucky-ok?) She received a flyer from a governing body of her area regarding a hotline and info for bedbugs. Did I mention-She lives in Northern Kentucky. THEY HAVE A HOTLINE. Sorry. Anywho. It’s just amazing the schism of misunderstanding between those who’ve had ’em and those who have not. Letter campaign? Invite Marty Markowitz over for a slumber party? Camp out on Bloomberg’s front porch? Ask De Blasio to take one of my two hour vacuuming shifts w/my new Oreck that I couldn’t afford? Thoughts? Thanks for reading.

2 nobugsonme August 29, 2007 at 1:52 pm

You were the one I was referring to who was told to do laundry. Thanks for commenting and giving us more detail.

HOWEVER, I seriously think you should read the FAQ I linked to above about what is supposed to happen when you call 311, and call again. The 311 employees are supposed to process a NYC housing complaint. You have to be persistent, despite having once gotten bad service.

Regarding Kentucky/Cincinnati, yes–there is a bad bed bug epidemic there and the government has shown more concern than New York’s in my opinion. We’ve been following the story there since the blog began.

Markowitz is a potential ally: his building had them. I am amazed at how slowly things are moving in NYC, but as awareness is spreading amongst the beleaguered and their friends and family, we are getting towards critical mass.

3 James Buggles August 29, 2007 at 2:21 pm

311 is a joke. I wouldn’t bother. Someone needs to find a friend Serpico-style at a major publication who can report on this issue until City Hall cannot ignore it anymore. I can’t think of anyone better suited to this task than NoBugs.

4 nobugsonme August 31, 2007 at 2:51 pm

Bugalina, not Bugzinthehood, is the author of the saying “Spread the Word, not the Bug.”

My apologies to Bugalina.

5 August 31, 2007 at 3:09 pm

Someone should slip Bloomberg a bug while he’s on one of his subway jaunts, but I guess when you have more money than God, it doesn’t make a difference anyway. He can just afford to spray and spray and spray and hire a cleaning team and have the help sleep in the house until the bugs are all dead.

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