The night Amy arrived in Brooklyn from San Francisco, she was ecstatic. She was ready to move in with her good friend Timothy in a charming two-bedroom apartment in Sunset Park, near the historic Greenwood Cemetery.
Amy, 24, works at a national non-profit organization and had moved out of the Mission District in San Francisco. Timothy, 28, teaches English and had lived in Sunset Park for the past year. The two were friends from college. (Their names have been changed to protect their social lives.)
The place was spacious, which was important since Amy planned on working from home. Amy found Brooklyn a lovely place. But her opinion soured in late June when she discovered insect bites, numerous insect bites, all over her arms and legs. Amy assumed they were mosquito bites or even flea bites, but never dreamed of bed bugs, assuming they were a problem of the past. Soon she found specks of blood on her bed sheets, which led her to scour the apartment. With Timothy’s help, she uncovered that, in fact, they were living with bed bugs.
According to Seth Donlin of New York’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), for fiscal year 2009, 311 records indicate Brooklyn had 4,042 complaints of bed bugs and 1,729 violations. Violations are written to the landlord and indicate that a bed bug situation exists. After receipt of the violation, a landlord has 30 days to act to ensure compliance with the City’s Housing Maintenance Code and the State’s Multiple Dwelling Law. These numbers place Brooklyn first among all boroughs in number of complaints, with over 50% more complaints than the next closest borough, Manhattan.
And those numbers may not even tell the whole story. In a recent report entitled Bed Bugs in New York City: A Citizen’s Guide to the Problem (PDF), the policy advocacy group New York vs Bed Bugs noted that a recent survey in Cincinnati, Ohio indicated an alarming under-reporting rate by residents. If there is similar under-reporting in Brooklyn, the above statistics should be much higher.
The causes attributed to the rise of bed bugs include the ban of the pesticide DDT (though there are several reports concluding bed bugs are resistant to DDT) and improper trash disposal. Renee Corea of New York vs Bed Bugs considers bed bug trash, often scooped up by unsuspecting neighbors, one of the biggest causes of infestations.
Ms. Corea sees a need for “protocols for the disposal of bed bug infested furniture and trash.” Ms. Corea illustrated a plausible scene where infested furniture is dropped off at the curb and suddenly, “your neighbor who thinks bed bugs can’t happen to him, will at the very least face a perhaps mildly deterring ‘bed bug infested’ sign on your lovely discarded couch.”
Indeed, it was in their couch that, after days of searching for proof of an infestation, Amy and Timothy found a live colony of bed bugs. They had purchased the couch used for their new apartment and it was in like-new condition. But then Amy received fresh bites after sitting on the couch, and they decided to take a knife to the couch. After slicing the bottom of the couch, they revealed thriving, live bed bugs. Previously they had found a single insect roaming the apartment, which they suspected was an adult bed bug. They placed it in a jar for further confirmation.
Dr. Louis Sorkin, a bed bug expert and entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History, states that adult bed bugs are easy to spot because they are a quarter-inch long and reddish-brown in color. However, the small nymphs are easy to miss in an apartment since the newborn pest hatched from an egg is 1mm long and pale white to straw in color are easy to miss. After feeding, the nymphs become plump and bright red. Photos of bed bugs can be found at bedbugger.com.
Verifying the infestation was only the first step for Amy and Timothy. They each spent hundreds of dollars purchasing mattress covers, space bags and laundering their clothes. But they could have shaved a few dollars off their unfortunate expenses. As Dr. Sorkin notes, if the clothes were already clean, drying the clothes is sufficient enough to kill the bugs.
The roommates lived out of space bags for over a month while they negotiated with their landlord over first obtaining a licensed exterminator and then getting the exterminator to return to finish the job. On a recent call to 311, the operator confirmed that the landlord is responsible for clearing the apartment of any vermin, which includes bed bugs. If the landlord is unresponsive, tenants can file a complaint with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development – via 311 – and if the problem persists, tenants can take their landlords to housing court. Of course, tenants always have the option of going straight to housing court without first filing a complaint with HPD.
Bed bug infestation is a growing national complaint. Congress recently introduced H.R. 2248, the “Don’t the Bed Bugs Bite Act of 2009,” sponsored by Congressman G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina, which would provide grants to assist states in inspecting hotels and other lodging facilities for bed bugs. The bill has been sitting in two committees since May 2009 and is awaiting further action.
In New York City, the City Council passed a bill initiating a bed bug advisory group. The bill, Int. 0057-2006, was sponsored by City Council member Gale Brewer and was enacted on March 18. The law provides the group shall consist of the following members:
Three members shall be appointed by the mayor, provided that at least one such member shall be from the pest management industry and shall have experience in bed bug control and/or extermination and at least one member shall have advanced specialized training in and knowledge of entomology…Two members shall be appointed by the speaker of the council, provided that at least one such member shall have a background in community health…[In addition,] [t]he commissioners of the department of health and mental hygiene, the department of consumer affairs, the department of sanitation, the department of information technology and telecommunications, and the department of housing and preservation, or the designees of such commissioners, shall serve ex officio.
According to Mr. Donlin of HPD, membership for the group has been finalized and an initial meeting is being scheduled, but the membership list is not yet available.
Ms. Corea of New York vs Bed Bugs said “the effectiveness of the board, because its purpose is to recommend specific strategies, will depend on the willingness of the [C]ity as a whole to first view the problem of bed bugs as something deserving of action and then participate in the actual problem solving.”
Dr. Sorkin notes that one thing the City should offer its residents is more education. The more people know about bed bugs – how to prevent them and treat infestations, including proper trash disposal, the more New York City will progress in its fight against bed bugs. And of all the boroughs, Brooklyn – including its newest residents – will have the most to gain.
As for Amy, she says bed bugs took an enormous toll on her life. “I would often not sleep until three or four a.m. because I was checking my sheets every ten minutes. I was super stressed out for weeks. It took over my entire life. There is also a social stigma attached that is isolating and depressing.”