Return of the Bed Bugs: Know Your Rights as a Tenant
Bed bug problems were common in America before World War II. Because of widespread use of the pesticide DDT, they became less of a problem during the 1950s and 1960s. By 1970, bed bugs had been almost wiped out in this country. They could be found in Africa, Asia, and parts of Eastern Europe, but they were rarely ever seen here.
That is not true anymore. As most tenants already know, bed bugs are back. Scientists discovered that DDT was extremely dangerous for people and animals. DDT was banned, and it has finally been almost eliminated from the environment. That is good for people—but it is also good for bed bugs. Because other pesticides do not do a good job of killing them, bed bugs have not only returned, they are also spreading very rapidly. More and more, bed bugs are turning up in apartment buildings and homes, motels and hotels, health care facilities and dormitories, and every other place where people live.
Learning about bed bugs
Bed bugs are small, brown, flat insects. They feed only on the blood of people and animals. Bed bugs are active mainly at night. During the day, they prefer to hide close to where people sleep. Bed bugs can easily hide in tiny cracks and crevices, such as those found in mattresses, box springs, other pieces of furniture, walls, floors, ceilings, suitcases—you name it, bed bugs can probably hide in it.
If an apartment has bed bugs, you can usually see them if you look in the right places, such as between a mattress and a box spring. Sometimes you can tell bed bugs are around because you see dark spots or stains on sheets and blankets. Sometimes you even see blood stains in a bed caused by the crushing of bed bugs. One good thing is that, so far, bed bugs have not been shown to transmit diseases to people. But that does not mean much to adults and children who are covered with bed bug bites. Bed bugs make people feel bad physically, emotionally, and mentally. An apartment filled with bed bugs is not fit to live in.
There are some other important things to know about bed bugs. One is that being a good housekeeper does not guarantee that you won’t have bed bug problems. Bed bugs are “hitchhikers.” They usually get into a home or apartment by hiding in luggage, clothing, furniture, or other things. Beg bugs can also get in by hiding in the clothing of tenants, landlords, superintendents, tradesmen, home health aides, people delivering meals, the mailman—even exterminators.
Because bed bugs feed only on the blood of people and animals, once they get into an apartment, cleaning alone will not get rid of them. (Even if the people leave, that does not mean that the bed bugs will die. Bed bugs can live for a year or more without food.)
Pesticides alone do not work
Another thing to know about bed bugs is that trying to get rid of them by using pesticides alone does not work. The poisons that do kill them must be sprayed right on them. Once the pesticides have dried, they don’t work on the bed bugs.
Another problem is that bed bugs often live in used furnishings—especially beds and couches and other used items. One of the best ways to avoid them is to avoid buying or using second-hand things. But lower-income people often cannot afford new furniture. Landlords may try to blame the tenants if there are bed bugs in an apartment, saying that they should not have bought used furniture. This is unfair. There is almost no way a landlord can prove for sure how bed bugs got into an apartment because there are so many ways that hitchhiking bed bugs can get in.
Ways to get rid of bed bugs
The best way to get rid of bed bugs involves using more than one treatment. Good exterminators will spray pesticides on bed bugs they can see. They will also spray them into cracks in furniture and walls where bed bugs are probably hiding. Good exterminators will put things like furniture and appliances into bags and then pump in high heat or cold, which is a good way to kill bed bugs. Putting clothes, shoes, toys, and other items in a clothes dryer at medium to high heat for up to 20 minutes will also kill them. And sometimes there is no choice but to throw infested things away. But even doing all of these things does not guarantee that the bed bugs will be gone right away. It often takes many tries before they are finally eliminated.
Getting rid of bed bugs is hard. Doing all the things needed to eliminate them can be really hard on older tenants, tenants with disabilities, and families with young children. This is especially true if the tenants have to get rid of things, such as cribs or beds or mattresses, that they can’t afford to replace.
Knowing your rights is important
If you are a tenant with a bed bug problem, it is important for you to know your legal rights. It is also important for you to do the things you need to do to protect yourself from being blamed for a problem that you didn’t cause. What your rights are, and what you need to do, depend on the kind of building you live in.
If you live in a building with more than one apartment, you should notify the landlord in writing as soon as you see bed bugs in your home. (Send the notice certified mail, return receipt requested, and keep a copy for yourself.) Since anyone—including the landlord’s workers—could have brought the bed bugs in, it will be very hard for the landlord to prove that any one tenant is the cause of the problem. That is why it is important for tenants to keep their apartments clean. An apartment that is not clean will not cause a bed bug problem. But you can be sure that the landlord will try to blame the tenant if the apartment is not clean. This could cause a problem for the tenant if the case goes to court. On the other hand, keeping a clean apartment will make it very hard for the landlord to try to blame a tenant for bed bugs.
If you live in subsidized housing, including public housing, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has given special written instructions to local housing authorities and landlords about how to deal with bed bug problems. It is still very important for you to give written notice about a bed bug problem as soon as possible to the Housing Authority (if you live in public housing) or your landlord (if you live in a privately-owned subsidized apartment). If the Housing Authority or landlord does not come out and begin to work on the problem right away, or if they try to blame you, you should contact your local Legal Services program for help.
The courts in New Jersey have said that it is a landlord’s duty to provide his or her tenants with a safe, livable apartment, one that is not infested with bugs or other things. This is called the “warranty of habitability.” Unless the landlord can prove that the tenant caused a problem, it is the landlord’s duty to fix it. This is true in the case of bed bugs as well. Since a landlord can’t really prove who caused a bed bug problem, the landlord must hire good exterminators to get rid of them.
If you live in a building containing three or more apartments, state regulations known as the “Hotel and Multiple Dwelling Health and Safety Code” also say that it is the landlord’s duty to get rid of bed bugs if they are in more than one apartment. The Code also makes it the landlord’s job to take good care of the building in order to prevent infestation problems. (The number given by the state to the Code is N.J.A.C. 5:10-10.2.)
If you rent a single-family house, or rent one apartment in a house with only two apartments, the laws are a little different. Local housing codes make it your responsibility to exterminate bed bugs or other pests, unless you can show that the problem was caused by the landlord not taking good care of the building. However, if the bed bugs are there when you move in, or there are bed bugs in both apartments in a two-family house, then it is the landlord’s duty to get rid of them. Just like tenants in larger buildings, you should notify the landlord in writing as soon as you see bed bugs in your home.
Getting legal advice and help is important
Where bed bugs are concerned, you should get legal advice and assistance if:
Your regional Legal Services office will be able to help you if you qualify based on your income.
If you find bed bugs in your home, the important thing is not to wait to do something. The best way to deal with bed bug problems is to get help as soon as possible.
This information last reviewed: Oct 6, 2017