How do multi family complexes remain bed bug free?
The answer to this question is multifaceted and there are many key points to keep in mind. However there are three main components: cooperation from the tenant, cooperation from the landlord, and an exterminator willing to do a good job. All three people have a role to play and if any one part fails in its part the program is likely to fail or cost much more than would be required than if all three did their own part. As an exterminator and a landlord I have come to the conclusion that the exterminator, though important, is the least important of the three. Of the work required to keep my building bed bug free only a fraction need be done by an exterminator. In fact the landlord is often in the best position to execute what is required.
20 years ago the pesticides an exterminator used easily controlled bed bugs without any cooperation from anyone else. The exterminator was the miracle worker. Since then two of the three basic families of pesticides were banned from use for bed bugs because of health reasons leaving only the safest pyrethroid class. Any time you use only one class of pesticide on a pest resistance issues become a problem. It is now widely recognized that bed bugs are gaining resistance to pyrethroids. Some genetic varieties of bed bugs are still easily controlled by pyrethroids but others are basically immune. There is currently a large bell curve of resistance levels between the two extremes. Because resistance levels are already causing problems for control the continued use of only pyrethroids will cause the resistance bell curve to shift sharply to the resistant end. If you think it is bad now just wait ten years – we have only touched the tip of the bed bug pyrethroid resistance iceberg.
The authorities in response are diligently attempting to find the best practices to keep bed bugs in check. There has been a call to bring back the least harmful class of banned classes of pesticides but so far the authorities have stood firm. The risks, and there are real risks, associated with this class of pesticide still outweigh the benefits of easier bed bug control.
The research into bed bug solutions has also exploded in the last few years. Unfortunately even if a “silver bullet” were developed today it would take 20 years of testing to get it onto the market. And there is no silver bullet on the horizon. Plus, as a hands on inner city landlord, I have noted that the earlier banned pesticides are still being used inexpertly and ineffectively by caretakers to provide temporary relief. This inexpert application of pesticides will quickly develop resistance levels to those pesticides as well. When the authorities do decide to reintroduce the previously banned chemicals we will find resistance issues with them as well due to their current illegal and ill-advised use. Think of it as the general public using the best and most advanced antimicrobial medicines currently available to treat general aches and pains – the result is resistance levels being quickly established for that excellent animicrobial agent leaving future generations at risk of infections without effective treatment. In the same way chemical solutions to bed bugs will become less and less useful in the future. We need to start thinking differently.
Given that bed bugs are no longer a problem easily solved with a wave of the exterminator’s chemical spraying wand it is becoming increasingly obvious that prevention and education take a central role in bed bug control. It is far simpler and more cost effective to avoid bed bugs than to treat bed bugs. As such any program to address bed bugs without prevention at its core is silly. And in multi family settings it is the landlord who ultimately is responsible for prevention. Unfortunately landlords generally do not wish to address prevention because doing so would imply that a bed bug problem exists in their buildings which could increase turnover and vacancy costs. But ignoring the issue out of fear simply magnifies the problem further. As such the landlord industry needs a sea change in attitudes. Personally as an early adopter of prevention strategies in my apartment block I expected an uninformed backlash from the tenants. I was pleasantly surprised that my efforts did not punish me – rather my apartment block became sought after because we were actually bed bug free. My landlord friends that adopted similar strategies out of desperation have found similar results. Diligent bed bug prevention is a huge and valuable selling feature. Lets look at what a landlord can do:
Screening new tenants
The prevalence of bed bugs combined with poor control in multi family settings has led to what I call the “Bed Bug Refugee.” These tenants know nothing about bed bugs except that they are unpleasant. They assume that the place they were living in was bad because it had bed bugs and therefore must move to find a better place. As an exterminator I come across these folks quite often. They move from one building to the next and bring the bugs with them. In the process of moving into the building there is also the potential of shedding bugs into the hallways of the “clean” building infesting many other suites. This can be quite a disaster.
For myself when interviewing a new tenant I wear two successive hats. The first hat is the landlord hat. When I am satisfied that they would be a good tenant I put on my exterminator hat and I educate the potential tenant on bed bugs. If there is any previous history of bed bugs, either in their own suite or neighbouring suites, I offer free (to encourage honesty) heat sterilization of furniture and provide a check list in how to move bed bug free. These tenants often end up being my best tenants because they can tangibly feel the value of my prevention program and do not wish to live anywhere else. If a potential tenant balks at the work involved I then know I don’t want them as a tenant and am grateful that I avoided having a potential problem tenant move into my building.
I have also on occasion inspected the potential tenant’s suite before move in to ensure they are in fact bug free. In my experience of inspecting entire apartment blocks I find about 80% of bed bug sufferers do not realize they had bed bugs so an expert inspection is valuable. On two of these occasions I pulled bugs off furniture and then insisted on the tenant following bed bug moving protocols.
I also inspect tenants before they move out of my building. If they have a new case of bugs that I did not catch earlier I want to know before they drag their furniture through the halls. I will then gladly personally wrap their furniture for safe removal from the building.
Granted some might consider me anal in these protocols but I find it very effective and I end up with better tenants than would ordinarily be the case. One of my landlord customers has taken an intermediary step by insisting that all new tenants are monitored for 6 weeks after moving into an apartment block. Not perfect but infinitely better than ignoring and hoping.
Landlords are required to inspect smoke detectors on a yearly basis. A wise landlord will also take the opportunity to do basic plumbing repair. I also include a yearly bed bug check. Given that most people do not recognize a small bed bug infestation my inspections can nip a small problem in the bud. This function can be easily performed by the landlord’s employees.
Educating the existing tenants
Most people know nothing about bed bugs and the internet is full of garbage trying to sell useless bed bug gadgets. I provide useful information to tenants about the dangers of hotels, visiting people with bed bugs, what to do if the work place is at risk (social worker) etc. Some simple protocols can reduce risk of bed bug transmission substantially. I also insist that all furniture moving into my apartment block must be either new, come from a reliable source known to be bug free, or heated in my heat sterilizer.
Include bed bug responsibilities in the lease
The lease the tenant signs should contain rules about bed bug prevention. For example, my own leases state that any person who self treats bed bugs will be immediately evicted and assessed monitoring costs for all surrounding suites.
When a tenant has bugs
Panic is typically the first reaction to bed bugs. And panic produces extraordinarily poor decisions such as spraying “raid” which simply disperses the bugs to surrounding suites, immediately dragging their mattress down the hall to the dumpster which again causes spread, and immediately doing their laundry in an unsafe manner which infests the suites closest to the laundry room. The best course of action is educate the tenants ahead of time about these dangers and provide hands on instructions about how this problem will be addressed safely with their cooperation. Once the tenant feels supported they will typically comply with your instructions and the spread to neighbouring suites is reduced. If prevention is your goal you want to minimize infesting other suites through tenant error.
There are, of course, tenants that refuse to cooperate and it is then the landlord that must take over the tenant’s preparation role. If the tenant does not cooperate the bugs will not be eradicated and the spread to neighbouring suites is assured. I have found it infinitely cheaper to assist these tenants out of my own pocket and address the bed bugs safely than write threatening letters and get nowhere. It is also not fair to the neighbouring tenants that they get bugs because the landlord was unwilling to spend $200 on tenant responsibilities to address the bugs. The landlord might balk at taking on costs for which he/she is not responsible but a cost/benefit analysis on the matter is clear. Pay a little now or pay 5 times that amount later. Once the bugs are gone you can then look at finding reasons adequate to having them evicted. People who do not cooperate with bed bugs have other evictable faults.
Should the landlord charge a tenant for bed bug costs?
The easy answer is yes – the tenant caused the expense and they should pay. On the other hand if the tenant feels he will be charged for the problem he/she will attempt to self treat which will spread the bugs to other suites which multiplies the costs. The tenant can then rightfully claim before a court hearing that neighbouring suites also had bugs and that they were not the source!! The tenant may also decide to move out and attempt to blame the bugs on the new tenant moving into the infested suite. This would also entail a lot of infested furniture going unwrapped through your hallways. As such I think the risks are too high to attempt to recoup costs. There is also a wise saying about only a fool going to court willingly. In the long run it is cheaper to eat those costs yourself.
Once in a while when attending a landlord customer’s bed bug cases the caretaker will try to reassure the tenant that they have “the best exterminator” to address their problem. I cringe when I hear statements like that because I know that the results produced are heavily influenced by other factors – not the least being tenant cooperation. If the tenant is not educated properly, does not know how to avoid bed bugs in the future, does not know how to avoid spreading their own bed bugs, fails to do their laundry, the “best exterminator” will fail. And if the tenant fails in his considerable responsibilities it is the landlord who must then take responsibility. The exterminator can only do so much.
And lastly, and probably the least important part of the process, the exterminator must have a plan and execute properly. The most important part the exterminator plays is in educating the landlord on what is required to get rid of bed bugs. It is then the landlord that must follow through to make sure the instructions are followed. Having minimized the role of the exterminator thus far it is still important that he/she have proper training and experience in the task at hand. Given the growing problem of bed bugs many exterminators are hiring new employees and some of these employees are not up to the task. The exterminator, in chemical only treatments, must be very thorough. On average it takes me about an hour to carefully go through a well prepared one bedroom suite. The exterminator that treats an entire suite in 10 minutes is a moron.
In conclusion I suggest that optimum results can be achieved in multi family settings when the exterminator, the landlord, and the tenant become a team. The exterminator provides the plan and the knowledge, the tenant does the grunt work, and the landlord carefully supervises, educates, and ensures the plan is followed. The person with the biggest part to play in the process is the landlord. The least important, though still vital, is the exterminator.