Don’t Let the Bedbugs Bite!
My landlord says that I’m the one responsible for getting rid of the bedbugs in my apartment. Is that true?
No, it is not! For tenants in New York, the right to a bedbug-free environment is included in the city’s housing and maintenance code, Subchapter 2, Article4, which specifically names bedbugs in the list of insects the landlord is legally obligated to eradicate. The New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) lists bedbugs as a Class B violation, which means that they are considered hazardous and that the landlord has 30 days to correct the problem. The landlord must eradicate the infestation and keep the affected units from getting reinfested.
If your landlord refuses to take the necessary steps, you can file a complaint with the city department of Housing Preservation and Development (call 311) or take the owner to Housing Court in an HP action; you can also file a complaint with the New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal (if you are aren’t-regulated tenant), but this can be time—consuming and may not be as effective in getting relief. As with any problem you have concerning repairs or services, in addition to calling the managing agent or speaking with the superintendent, it’s important to notify the landlord or managing agent of the condition in writing (send by certified mail,return receipt requested, and save a copy of your letter with the receipt), and let the owner and/or manager know what steps you expect them to take.
How Do I need to prepare for the exterminator?
The exterminator will let you know what steps you have to take in advance of extermination—and you should follow those instructions to the letter. Usually, it will involve dry-cleaning or washing and double-drying all bedding, clothing, and linens; some items that can’t be washed, such as woolens and luggage, can be put directly into a hot dryer for 30 minutes rather than sent out to the dry cleaner. You need to determine whether infested furniture can be cleaned and treated or whether you have to discard it. If you discard infested furniture, seal it in plastic and clearly label it as bedbug-infested before taking it out of your apartment. You should also take steps to make infested furniture unusable—such as ripping the fabric—so that people are less likely to bring it into their homes. Just hauling an unwrapped mattress out to the curb can scatter bedbugs throughout your building—which means they’ll soon be back in your apartment. All items discarded because they’re infested with bedbugs should also be kept out of common storage areas, unless they’re sealed in plastic.
[Update content] Generally, the landlord is only liable for property damages and out-of-pocket costs when you can show that there was negligence on the landlord’s part—that the landlord didn’t take reasonable steps to eliminate bedbugs. This could include a situation where the landlord knew that there was an infestation in a neighboring apartment or apartments and failed to take appropriate steps to stop the infestation from spreading in to your apartment. If you have proof that the original infestation or an ongoing infestation is the result of the landlord’s negligence—that the problem was caused by the landlord’s failure to act in a reasonable manner to address the bedbug problem—then you might have a claim for compensation for out-of-pocket costs and property damages related to bedbugs.
In the case of elderly or disabled people who are unable to move furniture around, is the landlord obligated to pay for workers to move furniture and/or other belongings to prepare for the extermination?
Landlords take the position that it is the tenant’s obligation to do this work or to pay someone to do it for them. Tenants take a risk by not doing the work themselves, since they can be held liable for failing to comply with the protocols for extermination. However, where the tenant is simply unable to do the work him- or herself, the tenant is physically unable to do the work and economically unable to pay someone else to do it, the tenant should make a request to the landlord in writing — with an explanation — that the landlord have its employees assist the tenant, since packing, etcetera, is part of the “work” required to eliminate bedbugs. Adult Protective Services will help some elderly tenants with preparation work; for information about this, call 311. There are commercial companies that will do the preparation for a bedbug extermination, but they can be very expensive.
What if everyone living in my apartment has to move out for a few days or even longer while extermination takes place? Does the landlord have to pay for relocation costs?
Most landlords probably won’t pay temporary relocation costs voluntarily. Trying to recover these costs—or trying to get the landlord to relocate you while the apartment is being exterminated—will probably require a court proceeding, and there’s no guarantee that the court would grant the relief; it all depends on the circumstances and the facts of the case. Remember, though, that if you move out while the eradication is being carried out in your apartment, you must make sure that you do not bring any bedbugs with you—which means that you must take the necessary steps to make your clothing and luggage bedbug-free by laundering them and/or putting them in a hot dryer.
Is bedbug extermination an “emergency” that a landlord can force a tenant to give access for on short notice, or is it a “normal” issue that requires typical negotiation with tenants about access?
You must give a landlord access to your apartment to take measures to get rid of bedbugs. If you have a lease, it will in all likelihood set forth the notice requirements for access. Unless you have a lease that specifically addresses access and bedbugs, bedbug infestation is not an emergency that allows access without notice—it is a Class B violation that allows the landlord 30 days to correct—so the landlord should be notifying you ahead of time that it needs access to you rapartment to inspect for bedbugs or exterminate. Nevertheless, you delay giving access at your own risk: if there are bedbugs, you should be acting in a reasonable manner in giving access, and you should cooperate with preparation for extermination. Bedbugs reproduce at such a rapid rate that every day of delay means that you have to suffer through a worsening infestation.
Can I use a bedbug infestation as a defense in an on payment case?
Yes, you can. Housing Court has awarded rent abatements for bedbug infestations. But you should be prepared to document the infestation, the notice that you gave to the landlord of the infestation, the steps that you took to prepare the apartment for extermination where relevant, and all steps that the landlord took, if any, to get rid of the bedbugs. If you are thinking about withholding rent to force the landlord to exterminate the bedbugs, you should know that because court records are sold to “tenant screening bureaus “that then sell them to landlords, you will be placed on a blacklist for future rentals, could have your credit score damaged for 20 years if you agree to a stipulation that includes a judgment — even if you win the case — or be evicted if you have not saved the money to cover all the rent that is due and owing if the judge does not find in your favor.
Can I break my lease and move because of bedbugs?
You must establish that the bedbug infestation constructively evicted you from your apartment to be legally entitled to break your lease because of bedbugs. Whether a bedbug infestation amounts to a constructive eviction depends upon the extent to which the infestation interferes with your life and/or deprives you of the use of your home. If you break your lease, you risk the possibility of the landlord suing you for the rent due for the remainder of the lease term and any other damages that the landlord may be entitled to under the law and/or the lease — and if the landlord sues you, it will be up to the Court to decide whether the bedbug infestation was so bad as to amount to a constructive eviction, and therefore allow you to break your lease. Bear in mind that if you move out without making sure that all the possessions you take with you are bedbug-free, you will just be taking the problem with you.
When You Can’t Comply — Or Don’t Want To
What if the extermination company the landlord hires isn’t competent, and I’m pretty sure that the methods they’re using won’t ever solve the problem?
This can be a tough call. If you refuse to let the landlord’s exterminator do the work, then you may be accused of being the problem. Generally in court cases involving contractors of any kind, judges in Housing Court will say that that you need to let the landlord use the company it picks, and when the work isn’t done properly, you have to return to court and complain. The best practice is probably to document what the company is doing, show that what it’s doing isn’t working, and try to compel the landlord to get a new company that will employ better methods.
What should I be on the lookout for with insecticides?
Insecticides are highly toxic chemicals, so you should educate yourself about a particular product before using it or allowing an exterminator to use it. This is particularly important when trying to eradicate bedbugs, since people—-especially children, who are most susceptible to toxins—-spend a lot of time in bedrooms and in bed. For information about insecticide components and their dangers, look at Web sites like the Children’s Health Environmental Coalition or the Natural Resources Defense Council. You should also bear in mind that most pesticides don’t kill bedbug eggs, making multiple treatments necessary. Some insecticides are repellant to bedbugs and may simply cause them to scatter, and since most kill only on contact, a bedbug deep in a crack or crevice may not get a lethal dose.
NEVER use insecticide “bombs” or “foggers”! Instead of killing the bugs, which rarely come into contact with enough of the insecticide to be affected by it, the bombs only drive them further into their hiding places, and perhaps even into neighboring apartments.
What if the landlord wants to use an exterminator that I believe uses dangerous or toxic chemicals (either in general, or to someone specific in my home.)
If you have a documented medical condition and/or a doctor advises against contact with certain chemicals, you should notify the landlord immediately, before an exterminator is sent to your apartment. If you don’t have a documented medical condition or advice from a doctor, toxicity becomes a more difficult issue. If you refuse to allow an exterminator in because of a general concern about chemicals, you do face the risk that the landlord may take legal action against you for failing to take the necessary steps to allow for the elimination of the bedbugs; continuing to harbor bedbugs where the landlord claims to be making a good-faith effort to get rid of them can lead to a holdover eviction proceeding for causing a nuisance.
What happens if I just take matters into my own hands and hire a competent exterminator who uses environmentally friendly, nontoxic methods for bedbug eradication, instead of accepting the exterminator the landlord wants me to use?
Taking matters into your own hands is essentially a question of assessing the risk. If you don’t cooperate with the landlord’s arrangements and your apartment continues to be infested, you’ll be at risk of legal proceedings against you, regardless of the reason for the ongoing infestation.
What if the landlord refuses to take care of the problem and I hire my own exterminator?
You can hire your own exterminator — but if you do,there is no guarantee that you will be compensated for the cost of the extermination. If you are compelled to hire your own exterminator because the landlord refused to do so, you can try deducting the cost of the extermination from your rent. Make certain, however, that you have written proof that you asked your landlord to hire an exterminator before you hired one yourself. If the landlord takes you to court, you can ask for a rent abatement for the time that elapsed between your notice to the landlord that there were bedbugs and the time that the bedbugs were eliminated,in addition to the cost of the extermination—and you may very well get it. You do risk not getting the abatement and having to pay the rent –- and, as in the case of withholding rent to force the landlord to exterminate, your name will also be picked up by tenant screening companies and you might have trouble getting a new apartment in the future, as well as having your credit rating damaged. Make sure that any exterminator you hire is licensed and make sure to get references. You must have proof of payment to the exterminator, and you always need to make certain that you have saved the rent money — there is never a guarantee that the Court will find that you had the right to deduct the cost of extermination from the rent.
What if the landlord refuses to take care of the problem and I can’t afford to hire my own exterminator I don’t want to risk being taken to Housing Court in an eviction proceeding by withholding rent?
You can bring an H.P. (Housing Part) proceeding against the landlord to compel him or her to exterminate. An H.P. proceeding is commenced in Housing Court. Once you file the proceeding, inspectors from HPD will inspect your apartment to verify the presence of bedbugs. HPD inspectors only accept evidence of actual bedbugs in the apartment or signs of their presence (bloodstained sheets, for example) as proof of a bedbug infestation—dead bedbugs or live bedbugs that you have in a container are not proof for HPD. HPD inspectors will not move furniture or bedding to look for bedbugs. You don’t need an attorney to do an H.P. proceeding; there are attorneys from HPD in the courtroom in H.P.proceedings who will sometimes assist you. But these attorneys do not represent you.
If the landlord is refusing to exterminate the apartment and you want to try to work toward abating the problem of bedbugs on your own, you can talk with a reputable pest-control supplier to discuss purchasing products to help exterminate the bedbugs. (See below, “How to rid an apartment of bedbugs.”) You may still be able to deduct the costs of purchasing such products if you’ve notified the landlord of the problem in writing.If the landlord takes you to court, you can ask for aren’t abatement for the time that elapsed between your written request to the landlord and the time when you were able to make your apartment bedbug-free, in addition to the costs of the extermination.