Recently, several states and municipalities have increased landlords’ responsibility pertaining to prevention, disclosure and treatment of bedbugs in their housing units. As many unfortunately know, controlling a bedbug infestation can cause immense physical and financial harm. It also comes with tedious tasks like washing and drying clothing on particular settings, storing clothing in sealed bags, sealing cracks in walls or buying an entire new wardrobe or set of bedroom furniture. Who should shoulder the costs, time and hardship associated with exterminating bedbugs? How did they even get there in the first place? Due to the clandestine nature of bedbugs, the he-said, she-said blame game is nearly impossible to referee. The battle against the tiny parasites has made its way to the court room, and whether the duty to treat bedbug infestations rests with the tenant or the landlord is still largely unsettled. Recent legislation may change the legal landscape with respect to bedbug infestations.
The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene provides that the right to a bedbug-free environment is included in New York City’s Housing and Maintenance Code, Subchapter 2, Article 4. New York City landlords are required to exterminate bedbugs within 30-days of receipt of a tenant’s report of an infestation and are responsible for taking preventative measures to thwart further infestation. (New York City Administrative Code §27-2018). Moreover, in August 2010, New York Administrative Code §27-2018.1 was signed into law and requires landlords to provide all new residential tenants with a one-year bedbug infestation history.
New York City’s "tenant-friendly" regulation has spurred action in other jurisdictions as well. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 22 states now have laws specifically addressing bedbugs. Increasingly, state legislation has called for landlords to make "reasonable provisions" and take "effective measures" for the extermination and prevention of bedbugs. (See F.S.A. 83.51) (See also Ala. Admin. Code §§420-3-11-12).
Connecticut has followed suit and requires landlords to engage a “bedbug protection team” in order to comply with Connecticut Statutes requiring residential units to be kept in a fit and habitable condition upon receipt of a complaint of an infestation. (C.G.S. § 47a-7) (ftp://ftp.cga.ct.gov/2013/BA/2013SB-00952-R000264-BA.htm). Upon a tenant’s request, Connecticut landlords must disclose the last date on which the rental unit was inspected for bedbugs and found free of infestation. Even further, Connecticut law now requires landlords to disclose to prospective tenants whether adjacent units are currently being or have been treated for bedbugs in the past 60 days. Connecticut’s bedbug legislation also creates a rebuttable presumption that landlords have breached their duty to comply with building and housing codes affecting health and safety and keep units in a fit and habitable condition if they fail to follow specifically delineated bedbug infestation prevention and search procedures. (Some, but not all, of which are mentioned above; for a complete list of procedures and requirements, see ftp://ftp.cga.ct.gov/2013/BA/2013SB-00952-R000264-BA.htm).
On the other hand, Washington D.C.’s rules and regulations regarding bedbugs are much less clear. In general, D.C. tenants are responsible to exterminate their own bedbug infestation if their unit is the only affected unit in the building. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/express/wp/2013/05/24/ask-the-advocate-3/). If more than one unit is infested, the landlord’s extermination responsibility is triggered. However, if the landlord has failed to maintain the premises in a rodent-proof or reasonably insect-proof condition, the landlord is responsible for exterminating the infestation. The preceding concept has only muddied the issue of who is responsible for a bedbug infestation. What is a reasonably insect-proof condition? As the problem of bedbug infestation persists, the D.C. legislature should provide landlords and tenants with clarity.
Additionally, the apparent shift in law towards landlord-funded remediation to treat and prevent bedbugs is not only advantageous to tenants. Landlord-representative associations are increasingly recommending that landlords, not tenants, bear the responsibility and cost for treating and preventing bedbug infestations. The reason for this trend is twofold. First, passing such costs and/or liability to a tenant often results in ineffective, destructive or dangerous self-help treatment (or no treatment at all) by a tenant in order to cut cost, time and energy associated with the extermination process. Improper extermination techniques can not only fail to destroy bedbugs, but can exacerbate the infestation. (See http://www.superiorbedbugsolutions.com/bedbug-dos-and-donts/ for a list of do’s and don’ts with regard to bedbug infestations). Second, in a practical sense, the landlord has more of an incentive to keep its property habitable, clean and free of infestation than a tenant with a lease with an expiration date.
The "renaissance" of bedbugs in the United States has caused municipal and state legislatures to impose remedial procedures for both landlords and tenants in the event of an infestation. Increasingly, the law surrounding bedbug infestations is changing with regard to what responsibility each party garners. Each situation with regard to a bedbug infestation will have its own nits (no pun intended), and thus should be evaluated thoroughly to determine any and all state-specific remedies that may be available.
Read the advisory as published in Law360 - "An Infestation of Bedbug Legislation" Subscription required.