North Carolina’s misguided Landlord/Tenant/Bedbug Liability bill (H721)

by nobugsonme on August 2, 2011 · 9 comments

in bed bug blame game, bed bug laws, bed bug legislation, bed bug treatment, bed bugs, north carolina

The North Carolina Senate will be considering a bill in 2012 that would have a huge impact on how landlords and tenants deal with bed bugs — and who pays for treatment — in the state.

H721, also known as the Landlord/Tenant/Bedbug Liability bill, passed in the North Carolina House in June. I have some concerns about its provisions.

The bill would prohibit landlords from renting a unit known to be infested by bed bugs. However, if the landlord gets an inspection from a licensed inspector, prior to leasing the unit, with a written report stating no bed bug evidence was found, then the landlord won’t be liable if a problem is discovered later.

If the landlord does not get an inspection before renting the unit, and then a tenant complains bed bugs are present within 60 days of renting the unit, the landlord must hire someone to treat within five days of this complaint. All neighboring units must also be inspected.

Landlords must also provide educational materials about bed bugs to new tenants.

The bill also requires tenants to refrain from knowingly introducing bed bugs to the unit, stating: “tenants shall not knowingly or recklessly introduce onto the premises any person or thing infested with bedbugs.”

Tenants must notify landlords in writing within five days of suspecting they may have bed bugs.

If the landlord got an inspection before the tenant moved in, or if more than sixty days have passed since the tenant moved in, the tenant must pay all costs of bed bug treatment — hiring a firm within seven days.

This tenant would also need to cover “any fees charged by the licensee [PCO] and any damages associated with the presence and elimination of bedbugs from the premises and any attached units and spaces.”

[Emphasis added.]

My concerns:

  • This bill does not specify what type of inspection is permitted. Regardless, no inspection methods exist — neither human nor canine — which are 100% reliable. So a clear bill of health from the inspector cannot be taken as fact.
  • This bill would mean tenants end up paying to eliminate bed bugs which were present before they moved in, simply because someone did a cursory inspection and signed a sheet of paper for the landlord.
  • If tenants do not react allergically to bed bug bites, then it can take longer than sixty days to notice visual signs of their presence.
  • Cases which existed in the unit prior to move in could become the tenant’s responsibility simply because they do not react to bed bug bites, and don’t see the early signs of the problem.
  • This bill would also penalize tenants who do notice and report bed bugs — since they may not have been the ones to introduce them to the building.

Here’s just one way this could go horribly wrong:

  • Let’s say Tenant A has a problem and does not notice (does not react to bites, does not notice the visual signs at first).
  • Her neighbor, Tenant B later starts have a problem.
  • Tenant B reacts to bites or can spot the signs more easily.
  • So Tenant B dutifully reports the problem.
  • If it’s sixty days after she moved in, or if the landlord got an inspection certificate before she moved in, Tenant B must pay for her unit to be treated and for all neighboring units to be inspected and treated if necessary.
  • She ends up paying for Tenant A’s bed bugs (though Tenant A had them first) and Tenant C’s treatment (Tenant C living on the other side of Tenant A).
  • This kind of scenario would undoubtedly occur, as would another in which a tenant moves into a unit with an early problem, where the inspector simply did not see evidence.

The instinct behind the bill — to make things fairer for landlords, and to force both landlords and tenants to work together to fight bed bugs — is not a bad one.

I understand the need for landlords and tenants to share the burden of eliminating bed bug problems. It isn’t fair for landlords to shoulder the entire costs of bed bug problems which are invariably brought in by tenants, guests, or maintenance workers, or which come from an attached building owned by someone else.

On the other hand, it also isn’t fair to create a system in which responsibility can be evaded as simply as this, or where an inspection holds more weight than is due.

It really is not possible for inspectors to sign off on units with 100% certainty they’re clear.
And tenants who don’t report problems promptly but instead put up with the problem for a while will be rewarded when their neighbor gets bed bugs and reports their own problems, then becoming liable for the costs of treatment for all units.

You can’t really legislate who pays for bed bug treatment based on the blame game. Blame for bringing bed bugs into a particular structure is just far too difficult to discern in many cases.

This bill was dreamed up by people who don’t know a lot about how bed bugs operate, or how difficult it is to determine with 100% certainty whether they’re present or not. Not surprisingly, it was initiated by a rental housing industry group.

Because posts about legislation under consideration often cause confusion to readers, I stress that this bill has not been made into a law, but be warned: it will come up for consideration in the North Carolina Senate in 2012.

You can download the full text of H721 from the North Carolina General Assembly’s website (PDF).

1 Koebner August 2, 2011 at 7:13 am

Oh dear, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

As you say, there is no inspection strategy that can certify a property 100% free of BBs, especially if the property is vacant & unfurnished on inspection.

I’m particularly concerned about properties where the BBs have moved between adjacent units. Short of removing all floorboards & drywall between tenancies, filling all joist voids & repointing all brickwork, I am at a loss to understand how, logically, a property can be said to be definitively free of BBs.

A full history is the most important thing – BBs have to be seen more in terms of epidemiology than tort. This bill will provide landlords with a false sense of security & may make tenants reluctant to report BBs on economic grounds, which will only exacerbate the problem.

The bill takes no account of the fact that BBs are a pest of exposure & may therefore be introduced by persons other than the tenant, for example, the landlord’s own repairs contractors.

The bill seems more concerned with apportioning blame than with effectively addressing the problem, & as such, it is at best mere window-dressing, & at worst the result of housing industry lobbyists swaying a reprehensibly ill-informed legislature.

2 nobugsonme August 2, 2011 at 12:30 pm

Very well put, Koebner!

3 bbgirl August 2, 2011 at 4:52 pm

This is shocking! How can you force a tenant to pay for not only their own treatments but the neighbouring units when it is so difficult to determine where the bedbugs even started? It seems to be an opportunity for unscrupulous landlords to pass the cost along to their tenants. Hopefully it will be the topic of some educated discussion before it becomes law. It seems fairer to legislate some kind of shared expense and mandate that all affected units be treated.

4 CarpathianPeasant August 2, 2011 at 6:53 pm

An important point here….

Do the North Carolina public officials read thoughts such as the ones expressed here?

“Write your congressman” doesn’t work unless you live in North Carolina.

5 David James August 2, 2011 at 9:14 pm

Lots of problems here. Sounds good on paper if you have absolutely no knowledge of bed bugs.

6 sam bryks August 7, 2011 at 3:57 pm

talk about poorly thought out!!!
as others have noted.. this is really junk!!!
so much blame to fall on tenants!!!
Unit 1.tenant finds infestation and doesn’t report
next door neighbour reports infestation from unit 1, and is now blamed for their own infestation and of unit 1 and any others in the block…

as noted by others.. no validation of what would be a reasonable inspection ….
and what if a unit three doors down is infested and bed or box is dragged down the hall then infesting a unit…
this is truly out to lunch by all measures taking the landlord off the hook..

theoretically if a landlord had incontrovertible proof that the site did not have ANY other infestation, then a new infestation by a newly arrived tenant could be put on that tenant, but just saying no one has complained doesn’t mean there is no other infestation…
in order to assign accountabilities reasonably, the key is
1. an excellent IPM program in place that includes education and a process of monitoring
2. response by landlord when there is an infestation — i.e. a truly professional response using an IPM approach

these legislation pieces are certainly based on presssure and sometimes more focused on protecting tenants and other times on protecting landlords. In Ontario there were two Members of Provinicial Parliament who were pushing private member’s bills for disclosure by landlords but these didn’t have much depth in addressing the bigger problem. Due to reaction, it resulted in a “Summit” with stakeholders speaking and one of the outcomes was funding for education for all health units in the province.
There is certainly a need for a fair process for both landlords and for tenants, but it won’t happen with this kind of distorted and badly thought-out legislation.
there really is a need for key folks to get together and talk this out. At the workshop I held in March I had the privilege of having two legal people, a lawyer and a paralegal who each represented respectively tenants and landlords. They reviewed the Residential Tenancy Act and in a joint presentation outlined their views of the Act and how to best handle this issue … Not the final word on this, but it certainly gave clarity of obligations and took into account the realities, but there is still a long way to go on this…. Blame helps no one… Prevention is really key – and this is relatively simple, but it has many parts that need to be handled. The legislation should reflect on this in practical terms and not create undue hardships and unjust circumstances for anyone.. neither tenants, nor landlords.

7 nobugsonme August 8, 2011 at 2:09 am

Thanks, everyone for your comments!

And thanks also, Sam, for filling us in on the discussions in Ontario.

sam bryks said,

theoretically if a landlord had incontrovertible proof that the site did not have ANY other infestation, then a new infestation by a newly arrived tenant could be put on that tenant, but just saying no one has complained doesn’t mean there is no other infestation…

I understand this is theoretical.

But if human inspections can never be 100% reliable, and k9 inspections are not 100% reliable, then could this theoretical “incontrovertible proof” ever exist?

8 WINSTON O. BUGGY August 8, 2011 at 9:34 am

Having dealt with legislation and implementation there will always be issues, this sounds on course though, however an increased educational component and a ninety day period might improve it.

9 bedbugfinder August 23, 2011 at 3:37 am

Lets look at this from a more broad aspect. We can all agree that Bed bugs can go dormant for a few months. They decide to come out of dormancy after the 60 day period in which the landlord would have to pay. Now the entire responsibility is on the tenant. This is not good news because economic factors have placed a vast majority of the tenants there in the first place. They simply cant afford to buy a house. Now that the tenants know that they will be required to pay for treatments, they will just remain quiet and use some over the counter sprays. This will make the problems spread to more units, so on and so forth, Until such time that the building becomes infested. This type of logic is bad for the tenant, but also bad for the pest control industry. The tenants won’t be calling a professional to perform their treatments so the Pest Control Industry will see a dramatic decline in Bed bug calls. This will hurt the PCO’s financially. The only saving grace to that decline is when the buildings become so infested that it is deemed uninhabitable. Then the landlords will have to pay professional Pest Control Companies to make their buildings suitable for human life.
The State of Florida “Within the State Statutes” has determined that Bed bugs are now classified as Vermin. Thereby making it the landlords responsibility to professionally treat all Bed bug infestations. And if the tenant has to leave the property during treatment, the landlord is to abait the rent for the time the tenant has to be gone.
Landlords understand that the tenants are the ones who bring them in, but In my view, Florida has the best laws. The logic behind Florida’s decision is solid. Yes the tenants bring them in, but the tenants can also move out, leaving the problem behind for the landlord to treat. After all, the landlord owns the building and by laws and statutes must make if suitable for human habitation. Florida Considers Roaches, Rats and now Bed bugs as vermin, and clearly states that it is the landlords responsibilty. If it was left up to a group of tenants, that didn’t have the money to pay a professional, and lets say are not reacting to the bites, These tenants may just live with the insects and allow them to spread throughout the entire building or entire property. North Carolina will soon surpass all other states to be the number 1 state in the union with the worst cases of Bed bugs in history.
We at the National Bed Bug Association feel that this legislation is giant leap backwards in the fight against Bed bugs, and we strongly oppose its passage.
This entire proposal seems to lend itself to “who has the bigger lobby in government”. I have spoken to many entomologists and scientists in North Carolina and they feel the same. They feel that it will increase the level of infestation throughout the State and the ones who will suffer most, is the tenants that do not have the money to fight it, but are forced to live in it.

We, as informed professionals can not stand by and watch a single group of people lobby to create the worst decision in our new Bed bug History. Most of us on these blogs work tirelessly to find better ways to battle these insects and educate people on how to reduce spreading and identification. The ramifications of this type of decision will resonate in Bed bug books and News Papers as the single piece of Legislation that infested the entire state of North Carolina. But remember, Bed Bugs travel, so travelers from North Carolina can ultimately bring them to your doorstep in your State.
Micah Nix
Executive Director
National Bed Bug Association

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