The politics of bed bugs and social housing

Getting rid of bed bugs in multi family settings requires a landlord willing to spend some money, an experienced exterminator determined to do a good job, and a tenant who follows through on the considerable amount of work required to prepare and take preventative actions in the future. If any one of these is missing the project will fail.

In social housing the government is the landlord. Governments are always short of money and, at least here in Manitoba, they have been running consistent annual deficits and raising taxes making them more and more unpopular. There are endless requests from various departments asking for cash to fix whatever problem presents and the government must wade through the requests and make wise choices about which issue gets money or does not get money. All the issues that did not get money end up as ammunition to the opposition parties which hammer away at them night and day. It is funny watching a conservative opposition party criticize the socially conscious NDP for failing to spend enough on health care. To get elected these governments have to spend money in such a way that they will be successful during the next election. The government in power has a very difficult job.

The government gives the head of MB housing pest control a certain amount of money and he/she is required to make a pest control program work. The amount of money is not decided by what is required but rather how much can be allocated from a limited fund of tax payer dollars. The head of pest control must then institute a program recognizing that not everything can be done. This individual must be very skilled politically to fend off the criticisms that come from not being able to accomplish everything required. I do not envy this person’s job. The final result is that social housing has a stingy landlord. That never bodes well for bed bugs.

In my own experience as a landlord I have found that a single uncooperative tenant can cause the bed bug program to fail and make life hell for all their neighbours. I have evicted a few of these folks. Social housing, by its nature, has a far higher number of uncooperative tenants (mental health issues, physical disabilities, substance abuse issues) than private housing. This does not bode well for bed bug control. And sometimes the social housing provider is pressured by government not to evict these folks because the tenant would become homeless and cause a drain on other resources such as health care, police, and jails. It is cheaper for the government to house the uncooperative tenant in social housing, despite the problems they cause, because the alternative is far more expensive. It only takes a few of these tenants in a building to make bed bug eradication impossible. The picture is starting to look bleak.

When I treat a case of bed bugs it takes me about an hour to treat a well prepared one bedroom apartment. And I am working hard. I can only do about 4 or 5 hours a day and I am exhausted. Wearing protective gear in a hot environment lifting couches and beds all day is not easy. And if the tenant does not cooperate with laundry, decluttering, and prevention protocols my efforts are in vain. In social housing the exterminator faces non compliance continually which makes eradication impossible. There are a number of tenants that do cooperate but their efforts are invalidated by their neighbors that do not. The exterminator (government created pest control company) must decide how much effort they are going to put into a project doomed to fail. It does not matter if the exterminator spends 60 minutes or 6 minutes in the suite. The result is the same. As such it is now common for the government exterminator to treat a suite in less than 5 minutes. This allows the exterminator to treat a fantastic number of suites a day which is cheaper. And if a tenant complains they still have bugs the records will indicate that they were treated – all the legal bases are covered.

So we see a stingy landlord, uncooperative tenant, and ineffective exterminator. The results are predictable.

The head of pest control in Manitoba, to his credit, created a program called “Bug n Scrub” to assist the tenants with non compliance issues. But the program is very expensive and the bugs are still difficult to eradicate. If the tenant opens the freshly laundered bags of clothing and throws them all over the suite the program still fails. If the tenant goes and visits his friend who also has bed bugs the program fails. This happens more often than you want to contemplate. The best one can hope for in this program is that the numbers of bugs are kept down to a dull roar. And the tenants are treated on a monthly basis for years on end.

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