As a good-sized city, the state capitol of Wisconsin, and a big college town (which means lots of students who tend to move frequently and often try to furnish homes on a budget), you can imagine bed bugs might be taking hold in Madison. From the Capitol Times, last Thursday, on the brink of the biggest moving day of the year: a warning to watch out for bed bugs in curbside furniture and mattresses.
Warning tenants about bed bugs mainly seems to be a yearly event in Madison, coinciding with the city’s big move-out in mid-August, when thousands of people move (either to Madison, from Madison, or from one apartment to another). This article seems to be part of a yearly tradition. Everyone needs to know that mattresses, sofas, and any other items left curbside could contain bed bugs, and transmit them to your home. People also need to know that unexplained itching, bed bug bites, or even sightings of bed bugs could occur in their new apartments, and they should be on guard for these and ready to seek help.
Here’s an article from August 17, 2007 (interesting in that it claims Wisconsin’s “relatively nice hotels” were the first places in the state to be infested — an intriguing statement, if it’s true).
Here’s another piece from the same paper on August 21, 2006, which is also notable, since it reports that a family had an apartment application rejected because they were moving from a building known to have bed bugs:
One family was rejected at a Fitchburg apartment complex last month partly because they had lived at an infested apartment at 2210 Rosenberry Road in the Allied Drive area.
Both Madison City Attorney Michael May and Tenant Resource Center program director Megin McDonell say landlords are probably within their legal rights to reject an applicant for prior bedbugs.
“It doesn’t seem fair, but there is nothing in the ordinance that prohibits that screening criteria,” McDonell said Thursday.
We have not heard of this happening elsewhere, but I do not doubt it has happened.
Another source of concern in Madison: there’s an ordinance in the city which allows tenants to take care of certain repairs and deduct expenses from their rent (the Rent Abatement ordinance). And according to this October 2006 Capital Times article, pests may be one issue tenants are encouraged to (or may think they can) resolve under this “self help” ordinance:
The intent of the new “self-help” ordinance, approved unanimously by the council Tuesday, is to allow tenants to address certain problems and, after review by the city’s building inspectors, deduct the expenses from their rent payments.
Shakira Parker said she would like to deduct the $75 she spent on insecticides to try to kill the cockroaches in her apartment in the Allied Drive neighborhood.
Several others also listed insect infestations first among the problems that landlords in the area have neglected. Tenants described sending children off to school, covered in bedbug bites.
The Capital Times was uncertain whether pest control might be among the problems tenants are encouraged and allowed to “fix” themselves according to the then-new self-help ordinance, which states that:
If, in the end, the landlord was unresponsive to a problem that the city deemed in need of repair, the tenant could be reimbursed for 125 percent of the costs.
Fixing a leak or patching a hole is one thing, but the idea of tenants self-treating for bed bugs is a terrible one. The ordinance does not allow for tenants fixing problems that could threaten safety or harm living conditions, but if tenants even think they can get reimbursed for treating their own bed bugs under the law, this is bad:
George Hank, director of the city’s inspection unit, said he was “generally very supportive” of the law, but said was concerned with how it might affect the use of insecticides.
If tenants take insect control into their own hands and believe they will be reimbursed for their efforts, he said, they might apply pesticides on top of other pesticides, possibly also duplicating efforts a landlord is already trying.
“That could create health hazards,” he said.
Yes it could. We think bed bug treatment is best done by a licensed and experienced professional who knows bed bugs, both because they can get rid of bed bugs more thoroughly and quickly, and because they know how to do it safely.
Bed bugs may be among the problems Madison landlords neglect, but they are the last problem in the world that tenants should be encouraged to try and self treat. Doing so can make them spread, and even cause harm to the individual.
For more on bed bugs in Madison, see this brochure “Don’t Pick Up Bed Bugs” from Madison’s excellent Tenant Resource Center (click here to load a PDF).
Note to Wisconsin residents: the Tenant Resource Center is a good place to look into your rights as a tenant in the state of Wisconsin, not just in Madison. Information is given here on your rights in Madison and Milwaukee, and phone numbers are provided for Building Inspectors and other resources in cities state-wide.