Chicago vs. Bed Bugs

Advocating policy to control the spread of bed bugs in the City of Chicago

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AAOA on Landlords, Liability, and Bed Bugs

Posted by Jessica on January 13, 2009

The American Apartment Owners Association posted some interesting words of caution to landlords on its blog today, and I thought I’d share some of them with you, Chicagoans.  I think it’s important for all of us to understand just how messy things can get between landlords and tenants when they’re forced to deal with bed bug infestations.

The title of AAOA’s post is “Are You Screening Your New Tenants for Bedbugs?  Landlord Liability Expanding As Bedbugs Continue to Thrive in Apartments,” and it starts off like this:

As these insidious biting creatures find their way from apartment house to apartment house riding in suitcases, furniture and clothing, new avenues of liability for landlords are emerging, including:

  • New tenants who bring bedbugs to the building
  • Old tenants who bring the problem to the new landlord
  • Employees and vendors who bring the nuisance to other apartments, and their own homes

These are some really important issues, and I’m glad to see that the AAOA is addressing them.  I’ve been contacted by countless Chicagoans over the last few months who are or have been involved in frustrating debates with their landlords or with their tenants about which of them is responsible for paying to exterminate bed bug infestations, and to what extent they are responsible.  It’s a tangled web, believe me.

The debates always seem to come down to one question: Who brought bed bugs into the apartment or building in the first place?

I keep hearing the same arguments, over and over again.  Landlords argue that tenants bring bed bugs into buildings, and therefore tenants should be responsible for eliminating bed bugs from buildings.  Tenants argue that they do not bring bed bugs in– or if they do, they don’t know it– and that landlords are responsible for maintaining their buildings, so landlords should be responsible for eliminating bed bugs.

I can see both sides of these arguments, I really can.  They’re both right, you know.  Bed bugs are human parasites; they travel with humans because they rely on our blood to survive.  So bed bugs are, in fact, introduced into buildings by humans.

It’s impossible, though, to figure out how bed bugs got into a building.  The truth is that many people live with bed bugs for months before they discover an infestation, because bed bugs are extremely difficult to detect.  By the time an infestation is discovered, it’s tough to try to determine where they came from: Could it have been a business trip taken last month?  Maybe a friend or relative brought them in?  Or did the bed bug infestation actually originate in a neighbor’s apartment, and travel in through an adjoining wall?

It’s impossible to try to find answers to these questions.  Think about it for a minute.  No one could prove any of the theories mentioned above– the business trip, the visiting relative, the neighbor– no matter how hard they tried.  Do you think you could find out if there were bed bugs in your hotel room during last month’s business trip?  Try calling the hotel and see what they say.  I bet they don’t say “Why yes, we do have a bed bug problem!”.  Or, try asking your relatives if they might have bed bugs.  I bet they don’t say “Why yes, and I brought them to you accidentally!”.  Imagine asking your neighbor if his or her apartment is infested.  I bet you wouldn’t hear “Yes, it is, and if yours is, too, we should work together to get rid of them!”.  You see, it’s impossible to try to figure it out, because even in the most obvious cases, the finger can– and likely will– be pointed in another direction.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter who “brought them in” anyway, does it?  What matters is who’s going to get them out.

And herein lies the problem, because once bed bugs are in, they are incredibly expensive to get out.  We’re talking thousands of dollars, people, many, many thousands of dollars.  As AAOA’s blog says

Once introduced into a unit (via a mattress or other belongings), bedbugs spread as invisibly and effectively as germs throughout the other units and common areas. The cost of subsequent decontamination of your building is significant, not to mention the hassle of subsequent sweeps when remaining eggs hatch.

True.  And the cost– the thousands and thousands of dollars– is what starts the finger-pointing and the debating between landlords and tenants.  The cost is what keeps landlords from helping their tenants at the outset (and, in turn, protecting their buildings from further infestation) and it’s what keeps tenants from making landlords aware of bed bug infestations at the outset (and, in turn, protecting their neighbors from further infestation).

In some places, like San Francisco and Boston, bed bugs are treated just like any other pest– like roaches or ants or mice– so the “who brought them in?” question is irrelevant.

What does the City of Chicago say?  Well, here’s what I’ve found and posted before:

From the City of Chicago Department of Public Health Website’s Bed Bugs: Frequently Asked Questions:

What should tenants do?

If you are a tenant, contact your property manager or landlord to discuss your respective obligations and come to an agreement on a plan to manage the infestation. If there is an infestation, landlords should contract with a licensed pest control operator to manage the problem.

Request a written integrated pest management (IPM) plan from the pest control operator. The plan will include the methods and insecticides to be used, and describe the efforts expected by the building manager as well as by the tenants.

And from chapter 5-12 of the City of Chicago Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordinance:

The landlord shall maintain the premises in compliance with all applicable provisions of the municipal code and shall promptly make any and all repairs necessary to fulfill this obligation (5-12-070).
In addition to any remedies provided under federal law, a tenant shall have the remedies specified in this section under the circumstances herein set forth. For the purposes of this section, material noncompliance with Section 5-12-070 shall include, but is not limited to, any of the following circumstances (5-12-110):

  • failure to exterminate insects, rodents, or pests

It seems pretty clear-cut to me, but then again, my opinion doesn’t count for much.  And landlords, if you don’t like what the City of Chicago has to say about bed bugs (as I wouldn’t if I were you!), you could always join us here at Chicago vs. Bed Bugs.  We are trying to advocate policy to control the spread of bed bug infestations, so our sole purpose is to make our city agencies and legislators aware of the physical and financial hardships that bed bug infestations create for everyone.

In the end, finger-pointing doesn’t solve the problem.  And in reality, landlords, it’s really in your best interest to hire a pest management company that specializes in treating bed bug infestations the very second you think that there might be bed bugs in your building.  You don’t want to put that responsibility in the hands of tenants who might not be able to afford proper treatment anyway, do you?


3 Responses to “AAOA on Landlords, Liability, and Bed Bugs”

  1. Ramona said

    This is very interesting. In our fight with the apt management there is the blame game going on for sure. After doing alot of research they can also live in mice nests within the walls of apt complexes i found this on several different sites that they live in bird and bats nests and any warm blooded mammal. Our apt complex has a horrible mouse problem and when the exteminators report back to the mgmnt staff that there were no visible bedbugs they assume they are gone. How ignorant is this. Not all BB infestations are visible. Any info on how to combat this would be greatly appreciated.

  2. Jessica said

    Hi Ramona!

    Welcome to Chicago vs. Bed Bugs. I hate to hear what you’re dealing with, because I know it can be really difficult, but I’m glad you found us and I’m glad you chose to comment. I think that talking about these issues is beneficial to everyone– people need to know what it’s like to deal with a bed bug infestation!

    I don’t know too much about bed bugs in bird or bat nests, but I think I read something about it in the World Health Organization’s Public Health Significant of Urban Pests. You can view the document by following the link; the bed bug section starts on page 73.

    If I remember correctly, in most cases, the bed bugs that live in bird or bat nests are the species of bed bugs that feed specifically on birds and bats. I remember reading that the species of bed bug that feeds on human blood typically lives on or near places where humans spend a lot of idle time (sleeping or sitting; i.e. on or near a bed).

    You are absolutely right, from what I understand, when you say that not all bed bug infestations are visible. Bed bugs are really good at hiding, and they’re really good at surviving, so sometimes they’ll camp out in places that are tough to see. I know that cracks and crevices in walls and floorboards are common hiding spots, and so are wall voids, particularly behind outlet plates and light switches.

    Bed bugs do, however, leave visible evidence. So if you’re having trouble finding the bugs, try to find the evidence: excrement, skin sheddings, blood marks on your sheets or pillowcases. If the bed bugs are there, the evidence is there– you just have to know what you’re looking for.

    The best information I can give you is that it’s important for you to become as informed as possible. It sounds like you’ve already been researching and reading, and I encourage you to keep it up! Knowledge is empowering.

    You could check out the links on our Resources page under the heading “Universal Resources– Bed Bugs”. There’s a lot of good, current information there. The New York State Integrated Pest Management Program document is a great place to start. You could also look at our Policy page, which contains links to policies that other cities have adopted, many of which discuss good ways to control bed bugs in multi-unit dwellings.

    Finally, remember, you have rights and responsibilities as a tenant in the City of Chicago, as do your neighbors, and as does your landlord. You can find more information about this by visiting the Metropolitan Tenants Organization or checking out this document from the Illinois Attorney General.

    Ramona, I’m so glad you chose to talk about bed bugs here on our website, and I hope you continue to do so. I think that engaging in conversation about bed bugs is really important. You can always start a conversation on our Discuss page if you like. Hopefully, others will join you. I certainly will!

    Take care, and remember, you are not alone.


  3. […] at Chicago vs Bed Bugs has a great post on this issue that is particularly good on the difficulty of apportioning blame: Think about it for a minute. No one could prove any of the theories mentioned above– the […]

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