The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s new landlord guidelines for dealing with bed bug infestations have some tenant-rights advocates concerned that renters could be on the hook for costly exterminations.
The new guidelines were released in late April, replacing its prior notice that had been published in August.
“It’s highly unusual for HUD to issue a notice and then in an extremely short period of time — eight months — change it,” says Ed Gramlich, the regulatory director for the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a national advocacy organization eyeing the notice change. “Usually, HUD is very careful about putting out notices.”
The August notice went into detail about bed bug infestations and the variety of treatment methods, and what tenants could expect from landlords during a treatment. It explicitly stated that owners “may not deny tenancy to a potential resident on the basis of the tenant having experienced a prior bed bug infestation.”
It also had a “Tenant’s Rights and Responsibilities” section. Among other things, it strongly urged tenants to report infestations as soon as they knew of one. It also advised tenants that they could expect treatments to start within five days, would not need to move for treatments to happen, and that “the tenant will not be expected to contribute to the cost of the treatment effort.” In other parts of the notice, owners were also explicitly prohibited from charging tenants the cost of treating a bed bug infestation.
The notice released in late April replaces the majority of the language from the August notice. Most notably, it deletes the “Tenants Rights and Responsibilities” section. The few references the notice makes to tenants and what they can expect from their landlords is a clear direction to tenants to “fully cooperate with the (landlord’s) efforts to identify and address infestations.”
Added to the notice is a vague sentence concerning tenant’s advocates the most, which they say opens the door to expecting tenants to pay for the cost of bed bug treatments: “(landlords’) requests for tenants to pay the costs of infestation treatment must be in accordance with the provision for tenant payment of damages.”
Notices give broad guidance and rules for people associated with HUD subsidized properties — including building owners, landlords, property management companies, and tenants.
“These are like guidance. It’s not as powerful and as legal as regulations, but it’s the next best thing,” Gramlich says.
The notice only applies to project-based Section 8 subsidized housing — housing where the Section 8 voucher is tied to the housing unit and cannot follow the voucher recipient — and multifamily insured and assisted properties.
Lee Jones, a HUD spokesperson, says there are “some changes in tone, certainly” in the new notice, “but it really did not see any change in the rights of responsibilities of residents.”
He said the notice was revised after concerns had been brought to HUD by parties he would not name. He said part of the reason the notice was revised was to emphasize the necessity for tenants to cooperate with landlords during infestation treatments.
“It is generally the case that most of the costs associated with the infestation are born by the owner,” Jones says. “This is only for the possibility that an owner finds a hostile or uncooperative tenant who does not want to cooperate at all. Just as it takes two to tango, it takes two to eliminate bed bugs.”
But Gramlich thinks the notice is “potentially very harmful to residents,” and thinks it may deter them from reporting they have an infestation.
In response, Gramlich says the National Housing Law Project intends to organize various Legal Aid offices and other legal clinics serving low-income people in urging HUD to reinstate the language from the August notice.
Elisa Harrigan, the executive director of the Community Alliance of Tenants, says it’s hard to tell exactly what the obligations and expectations of tenants are in the new notice. “It’s so vague and so new that we don’t know the legal implications,” she says.
Ben Duncan, a Multnomah County Environmental Health program specialist and the coordinator of the county’s Bed Bug Task Force, agreed. But he and others worry that the notice will have the unintended consequence of causing tenants to not report that they have bed bugs in their unit, in order to avoid paying the steep costs of treatment.
That, he said, would negatively impact the efforts to reduce bed bugs throughout the county. “Everybody knows that early response and appropriate communication between the landlord and the tenant is critical to controlling and mitigating bed bugs,” Duncan says. “Any time you have a deterrent for tenants to report, it’s going to have a negative impact.”
Since bed bugs began infesting hotels, apartment complexes, and other buildings in Portland and other cities throughout the country two years ago, low-income housing providers have taken aggressive steps to reduce infestations.
Roger Moore, assistant director of property management for Home Forward (formerly known as the Housing Authority of Portland), says the agency has used two different types of bed bug sniffing dogs, a cryogenic freezing unit, chemical treatments, cedar oil, steam treatments, getting rid of baseboards and sealing cracks and crevices in apartments, doing yearly inspections, and even giving residents quarters to encourage them to do their laundry more often.
The shotgun approach has worked. “We have seen dramatic decreases in the amount of bed bugs,” he says, guessing the numbers have gone down between 60 and 70 percent. “We have invested a lot of time and resources into this. We’re not going to find a silver bullet.”
But he says the most important component of treatment is getting residents to report they have bed bugs in their unit. “You have to get residents to report,” he says. “The longer bed bugs stay in a unit, the more they multiply, the harder they are to get rid of, and the more costly it is.”
Adrienne Karecki, Central City Concern’s Director of Social Enterprises and Employment Services, says a great deal of stigma still exists in the minds of Central City Concern’s residents despite efforts to educate them about bed bugs and encourage them to report infestations. “They think it’s an embarrassing problem,” she says.
She refers to the work Central City has done to reduce bed bugs as “a process.” Tenants are more receptive than they have been in the past, and she says, “If the tenants work with us … we can significantly reduce and get rid of the bed bugs.”
Both she and Moore say tenants have been cooperative when dealing with treatments, which can take months and cost tens of thousands of dollars.
Moore says that, on average, the tenants in Home Forward’s high-rise buildings — where bed bug infestations are the worst — earn 19 percent of median family income, or a little over $8,000 a year for one person. In his mind, it’s ludicrous to charge tenants for any part of the bed bug treatment, not only because they are unable to pay for it, but also because it can never be known if that tenant brought bed bugs into the unit in the first place.
“We want to help residents as much as possible,” he says. “We wanted to take away as many of the barriers as possible. We found that it was so much cheaper for us in the longrun if they would report in a timely manner rather than waiting.”
If tenants knew they had to pay for all or some of the cost of treatment, Moore predicts they would simply “live with the nuisance of bed bugs.”
Karecki also says Central City does not charge residents for the cost of the treatment. “They just couldn’t pay,” she says. “It would be a pretty huge barrier.”