Many local laws make it easier for bed bugs to spread, and New Jersey’s laws are among them.
As noted on our FAQ about who pays for treatment, the New Jersey Warranty of Habitability says landlords have to keep rental apartments pest-free.
However, things can be a bit more complicated than that.
Although the law says NJ landlords have to pay to eliminate bed bugs from rental units, they don’t say landlords can’t then turn around and charge tenants to cover the costs.
This Journal article details an example of this in action: seniors living in low-income housing, the 240-unit Grandview Terrace in Jersey City, are suffering badly from bed bugs, and have been for three years. Fifty units are now known to have them:
The state holds landlords responsible for extermination in “multi-unit” buildings of three or more apartments – if the bugs are found in two or more units or in common areas. But the state doesn’t take a stance as to whether landlord can then turn around and charge the tenants, said Jennifer Monaghan of the state Department of Community Affairs.
One-and two-family buildings are regulated by a different set of laws that can be superseded by municipal law, but in general the rules are the same: the owner is responsible, but has the right to include a provision in the lease charging the costs back to the tenants.
But despite the law most Jersey City landlords are shouldering the costs, said Charles Odei, director for Jersey City’s Division of Tenant Landlord Relations. “With all the other cases (but Grandview Terrace) we’ve been successful in getting the landlord to pay so far,” he said.
The 284-unit Grandview Terrace has had nearly 50 cases of bedbugs in the past three years, said Steve Lesko, president of Norman Ostrow Inc., which manages the building. He said the building’s tenant board voted in 2006 to charge tenants individually.
“Why should people who don’t have a problem pay for people who do?” he said, adding that the policy tends to prevent false alarms.
That kind of policy, decided by a tenant board or not, just shows an ignorance of bed bugs and how they work. They probably made this decision ignorant of the fact that a large percentage of people do not react to bed bug bites, and so have to have a pretty serious infestation before they notice it. They must also have been ignorant about just how easily bed bugs travel within a building.
And clearly, Grandview Terrace’s management is ignorant about how bed bugs travel:
Lesko said most infestations at Grandview come from tenants bringing the bugs into the building through used furniture or their clothes, not from the bugs moving from one apartment to another.
But tenants disagree, saying they’ve seen the bugs in common areas, and that the critters can easily jump from one tenant to another in elevators.
And charging tenants individually has the down side that many won’t report the problem, causing the infestation to continue to spread.
“Everyone that lives in Grandview Terrace is on a fixed income,” said Robert High, who has tried to deal with the bugs on his own. “We can’t afford it.”
Bed bugs don’t jump, but they do walk, and run.
I am not sure how the building management determined that those 50 cases were mostly caused by bed bugs being brought in from outside.
(Perhaps Lesko has little tracking devices planted on them?)
But I do know this: forcing elderly people on limited incomes to pay for their own bed bug treatment is a good way to ensure the entire building is eventually infested. And that’s not good for owners or tenants.
New Jersey needs to update its housing laws. If tenants are going to be forced to pay for bed bug treatment, then there must be a provision of financial assistance to help them do so. And of course, if landlords are suffering hardship, the government can certainly pass laws to help them pay for treatment too. But skipping or skimping on bed bug treatment is not a good idea.
People need to be encouraged to report bed bug problems, and they need immediate treatment, regardless of ability to pay. It’s in everyone’s best interest that everyone gets good, swift treatment for bed bugs.
This article, also from the Journal, reports on how seniors in a Bayonne Housing Authority building, Back Bay Gardens, at 535 Avenue A, are suffering with bed bugs, despite treatment.
One tenant there had 10-12 PCO treatments, and has now been free of bed bug bites for three weeks (much too soon to declare victory).
The problem there seems to be that tenants are only treated if they complain about bed bugs — there do not seem to be any routine inspections going on. And when they are treated, the article implies there is a one-month gap between treatments and follow-ups only occur if tenants ask for them:
[John Mahon of the Bayonne Housing Authority] said the Housing Authority provides an extermination service once a month and sends the exterminator when a tenant calls with a problem.
A tenant who had treatment several weeks ago reports continuing to see bed bugs. Why aren’t all the units in this building being inspected, and why aren’t treatments recurring at approximately 2-week intervals, which most PCOs who know bed bugs seem to recommend? Almost no one gets rid of bed bugs after one treatment, since traditional treatments do not kill bed bug eggs, which hatch in approximately 10 days.
This article is disturbing, and a good reminder that simply providing bed bug treatment to residents is not enough; buildings and housing authorities need good bed bug treatment protocols; they need to provide aggressive treatment with follow-ups, and to inspect units adjoining those with infestations even when tenants have not yet detected a bed bug problem.
More on bed bugs in Grandview Terrace, and on the spread of bed bugs in Hoboken, Atlantic City, and the rest of the Garden State here.