New California law aims to stop spread of bedbugs

By Kathleen Pender
August 26, 2017 Updated: August 28, 2017 2:46pm

A new state law designed to battle bedbugs requires California landlords to provide tenants with written information about these blood-sucking, tenacious pests and how to report suspected infestations to the landlord.

The disclosure requirement took effect for new tenants July 1 and will apply to existing tenants Jan. 1.

The law also prevents landlords from showing or renting a vacant unit with an active infestation, and from retaliating against tenants who report bedbug problems. It does not require them to inspect rental units for bedbugs if they have not seen them or received a tenant complaint. But it does require them to notify tenants within two days of a pest inspector’s findings. It also requires tenants to cooperate with the detection and treatment of bedbugs.

The law does not say what landlords must do when tenants complain. In California, however, residential leases have an “implied warranty of habitability” that requires landlords to maintain rental units in a condition fit for humans. That includes keeping it free of rodents and vermin, said Whitney Prout, a staff attorney with the California Apartment Association, which represents landlords.

“Why bedbugs have their own law is that they are a harder pest to treat,” Prout said. “It requires early detection and integrated pest management between the landlord and tenant, because of how pervasively they can take over.”

Bedbugs feed on blood, mostly human and usually at night. “Adults are the size, shape and color of an apple seed. Eggs are the size, shape and color of a sesame seed,” said Tami Stuparich, a vice president with California American Exterminator Co.

A baby bug, called a nymph, looks like an adult, but is pinhead-size and lighter in color. They turn reddish and elongated after a meal. Nymphs shed their exoskeleton five times before they become a breeding adult.

Unlike lice, bedbugs don’t stay on people; they eat and run. Nor do they jump like fleas or fly

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. They can crawl or be carried from place to place on objects or people. Bringing in furniture from the street is a good way to get them. Because they are flat, they can hide and travel in cracks and crevices. (See article on one couple’s bedbug saga in San Francisco.)

They can move easily from unit to unit, and unless all affected units are treated together, they’ll come back. Most places require more than one treatment.

Telltale signs include small red or brown fecal spots, molted skins, white, sticky eggs or empty eggshells. They are often found on mattresses, box springs, headboards, nightstands, linens, upholstery, walls and carpet edges.

Bedbugs do not carry disease, but some victims develop itchy red welts that could be mistaken for mosquito or flea bites. Others have no reaction, which makes them even harder to detect until they’re rampant.

Jennifer Brass found bedbugs in her San Francisco apartment in 2010. Their bites were “extremely itchy and they lasted for a very long time in a very intensive way,” she said. “I still consider it one of the worst experiences of my life,” more uncomfortable than childbirth without medication, said Brass, now a professor at Indiana University.

Bedbugs were common in the United States before World War II, but essentially vanished in the 1940s and 1950s, thanks to DDT and other potent, long-lasting pesticides that could be bought over the counter, said University of Kentucky entomologist Michael Potter.

They persisted elsewhere in the world, and decades after those pesticides were banned, made a comeback here. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, they started appearing in big-city hotels, stowing away in the clothes and luggage of international travelers. They soon spread to homes, offices, schools, libraries, anywhere they can find a meal.

“They don’t care about filth, like a cockroach. They feed on us,” Stuparich said. Equal opportunity diners, they show up in single-room occupancy hotels and posh apartments.

Los Angeles ranked fourth and San Francisco ranked 10th on a list of U.S. cities where Orkin, a pest control company, performed the most bedbug treatments last year.

San Francisco has had a bedbug ordinance since 2012 that, in some ways, goes beyond what the state law requires.

If a prospective tenant asks about bedbugs, the landlord must disclose in writing the unit’s bedbug infestation and abatement history, or lack thereof, for the previous two years.

Within two days of getting a bedbug complaint, the property owner or manager must hire a licensed pest control operator to investigate that unit and the ones above, below, next door and across the hall.

“It’s one of the few pests where we don’t want any kind of do-it-yourselfer dealing with it,” said Larry Kessler, principal health inspector with the city’s Department of Public Health.

The San Francisco ordinance requires landlords to “make available” to tenants information on the “signs and symptoms” of bedbugs. Under the new state law, they will have to provide it. Many landlords have voluntarily included in lease agreements a “bedbug addendum” put out by the San Francisco Apartment Association. The California association has published a similar addendum for member use that complies with state law.

There are various ways to kill bedbugs. The lowest level is treating the affected areas with steam or pesticides, said Darren Van Steenwyk, technical director with Clark Pest Control. Another option is heating an entire room, apartment or house up to lethal temperature. Extreme cases might require tenting the building and fumigating.

The cost of each treatment depends on the labor involved but can range from hundreds to many thousands of dollars, Van Steenwyk said.

William Meyer, whose company WM Properties manages apartments in San Francisco, had to treat about 10 units in two buildings, one on Nob Hill, a couple of years ago. The cost was about $1,000 per unit. Some required up to six visits over six months.

Tenants are often required to vacuum thoroughly; put their clothes, linens and stuffed animals in the washer or dryer on the highest heat possible and store other belongings in airtight containers for extended periods.

State law requires landlords to repair, at their expense, damage or problems that compromise habitability, unless they can prove that it was the tenant’s fault.

“We find that landlords claim they are not responsible,” for bedbugs, said Deepa Varma, executive director of the San Francisco Tenants Union. “In multifamily dwellings, it’s almost impossible to prove it was the tenants who brought in the bedbugs. Because of that, generally speaking, landlords are not able to pass those costs on to tenants if tenants know their rights and fight back.”

Tenants in San Francisco who think their landlords are not cooperating should contact the health department. “We will make sure the landlord does what is necessary,” Kessler said.

Since 2012, the department has received 1,079 complaints about bedbugs in apartments and 1,104 about hotels, including single-room occupancy hotels.

Prout, of the California Apartment Association, said that “if a bedbug issue comes up and there is a dispute as to whose fault it was, our recommendation (to landlords) is to treat first and deal with the issue of who is responsible later.”

The question of who is at fault is one reason neither the state nor city bedbug laws will stop the spread of bedbugs, Potter said.

“The holy grail of bedbug management is proactive inspection,” he said. “If you rely on tenants, you can have have ticking time bombs. People don’t want to report them; they’re afraid of reprisal” or having to pay for eradication.

New York City requires landlords to pay for bedbug extermination, Potter said, but no city or state requires them to do periodic inspections. “If you are going on a complaint-based way of dealing with bedbugs, that’s how we get into these horrific problems,” Potter said. “Some tenant has the mother lode, never reports them, and they disperse throughout the building.”

Kathleen Pender is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Email: Twitter: @kathpender