What struck me most was its grim view of a bedbugged future, where we just give up and accept our fate of living with bed bugs.
Both [Virginia Felton of the Seattle Housing Authority] and [Clay Thompson of the Seattle’s Department of Planning and Development] admit the city doesn’t have the resources to exterminate its bedbugs. “We could spend thousands and thousands of dollars getting rid of the bedbugs in any given place,” Felton says, “and then someone could just bring them back in.”
So what does she propose?
“If we can provide resources for our residents to not be bitten constantly and get a good night’s sleep, then that’s pretty good.”
In other words, bedbugs are now a permanent fact of life for the urban poor in Seattle, just like the old days. And SHA isn’t trying to exterminate the bedbugs, just keep them out of the bed?
“Provide bed frames for our residents to get their mattresses off the floor, tell them to keep the beds away from the walls and their blankets off the floor,” she says. “And there are these little interceptor disks you put beneath the legs of the bed…”
It’s nice to think that we can keep people from being bitten in bed, and that this allows people to live with bed bugs and not be bitten, but the reality is that bed bugs which do not bite you in bed will bite you during the daytime. There’s no reason to think they’ll feed any less often, either. They live to feed on their hosts’ blood, and are not easily deterred from doing so.
The City of Seattle needs to do more to get rid of bed bugs, not just help tenants isolate their beds while they live with bed bugs. I know it’s not the fault of the DPD or the SHA — they need funding.
If an earthquake had put cracks in buildings all over Seattle, I am pretty sure some federal emergency funding would ensure tenants did not have to sleep under tarps.*
Bed bugs are a kind of natural disaster.
The article notes that Felton “who has worked at SHA for 10 years, heard the first reports of bedbugs this year at Denny Terrace” (I assume The Stranger means this fiscal year).
That must be an error.
Almost exactly a year ago, we picked up on a story from NWCN news that — in response to bed bug troubles — the SHA had acquired a bed bug sniffing dog, were looking into thermal bed bug remediation, and talking about educating tenants about spotting bed bugs. At the time, we sure thought SHA had it going on, where bed bugs were concerned. It is clear from the NWCN story that bed bugs were being reported in SHA buildings well before January 2009.
In any case, now 1/3 of the units have been treated, and there are currently 35 outstanding work orders (the wait time for an inspection at Denny Terrace is two weeks; who knows how long treatment takes). If units are inspected and treated only as complaints roll in, the problem can continue to spread.
And those are likely not all the infested units, since as the residents’ pro bono lawyer Julie Wade notes,
“People are reluctant to complain,” she says. “They’re worried about losing their housing and worried about retaliation.”
And we can assume many others simply don’t see bed bugs and don’t react to bed bug bites.
I realize that fighting bed bugs will be an ongoing struggle for any housing provider. I am not suggesting that proper treatment of a SHA building would be a one-off exercise, where bed bugs in the entire building are zapped overnight with a one-shot method like Vikane or thermal, and never return. However, allowing low income tenants to live permanently with bed bugs means they will continue to spread at alarming rates.
And eventually everyone in Seattle could be affected.
And I wonder if that would be equally acceptable?
The earthquake analogy was perhaps not the best move today, I realized after writing this. (Sorry about that.)
Bed bugs are far from being on the same level as far as disasters go. I still insist that we deserve not to have to live with them. But it’s really important to clarify the distinction.
On that note, I just made a donation to Doctors Without Borders to support relief efforts in Haiti.
We were happy to see that Virgina Felton left the following comment on this post today:
vfelton January 15, 2010 at 3:28 pm
Hey folks, Virginia Felton here, from the Seattle Housing Authority. Just to clarify, I’d suggest the The Stranger was not totally accurate about our approach. Our aim is to get rid of bedbugs entirely. We are killing them agressively with our pro-active approach, but we know that no one is able to eliminate them entirely. In the meantime, we want to make sure people get a good night’s sleep.
Just to clarify, it’s important that readers understand that it is possible to rid one’s home of bed bugs entirely.
On the other hand, it would probably be impossible to ensure that a large public housing building like Denny Terrace (which has 218 units) was entirely free of bed bugs — at least it would not be possible to ensure this for very long. It would probably be impossible to get it bed bug free even momentarily without a lot of money being invested, and this would not be a permanent solution (though some public housing developments have done so in the past using building-wide thermal treatment or gas fumigations). I think that’s what Virginia Felton meant, and I appreciate that difficulty.
She also helpfully directs us to the SHA’s article, Seattle Housing expands efforts to control bedbugs: Tools and education being used to stop the spread of bedbugs.
It details the efforts being directed by SHA into pest control treatment (pest management professionals), tools to help tenants fight bed bugs (they’re providing tenants with encasements and ClimbUp Interceptors, among other things), and educational programs which are helping tenants learn how they can help fight bed bugs (by promptly reporting problems, allowing treatment, doing the required prep, reducing clutter and belongings where possible, and using the tools provided properly).
All of that certainly sounds very good!
Interestingly, the report notes that the SHA has also built cooperation with bed bug treatment into their leases and renewal leases:
Highlighting the commitment required to address bedbugs, the Seattle Housing Authority included an addendum dealing with pest control into its standard lease with residents in November 2009. The addendum has been posted in all properties, and is included with each lease renewal.
This policy outlines steps residents must take to make controlling pests possible in their apartments, such as ensuring there is good enough access to all areas of the unit for pest control staff to do their work. Also, the policy emphasizes the fact that bedbugs are more easily spread when they hitch a ride on items like discarded furniture or infested personal possessions, so preventative measures like using plastic bags are necessary.
It also notes that helpers are provided for tenants who need assistance with prep.
And it clarifies the historical background to the SHA bed bug problems, another issue mentioned in the post above:
The Seattle Housing Authority is responding to increased reports of bedbugs in some of the 4,500 rental units it manages and rents to low income residents in Seattle. Over the past year alone, there have been over 200 reports of bedbugs, whereas there were none as recently as early 2007. While not all of those reports turn up bedbugs, the housing authority recognizes that this is a serious issue that affects the lives of its tenants in considerable ways.
I am glad that SHA is doing as much as it is for tenants, and I hope that aggressive inspections and repeat treatments where needed (it isn’t clear how quickly that happens after an initial treatment), as well as the provided tools and education about bed bugs, will help more tenants live bed bug-free.
And I still think the SHA needs more funding, to be able to respond promptly to complaints and to carry out its other work.
Thanks, Virginia, for your clarifying comment, and I encourage everyone to read the SHA’s full report here.