Bedbugs, the unwitting beneficiaries of the foreclosure crisis, are creeping back into Twin Cities’ households, straining the pocketbooks of low-income families.
The blood-sucking insects can cost thousands of dollars to eradicate. Families often have to throw out their mattresses, furniture, and even books, toys, picture frames, DVDs –anywhere the apple seed-sized insects might hide. And, since bedbugs can survive for up to a year without feeding, even the most careful efforts to eliminate them can fail.
Although the Minnesota Department of Health does not track the number of infestations, as bedbugs have not been shown to carry disease, exterminators and public health organizations report sharp increases in the past several years.
Plunkett’s Pest Control Incorporated, a large Midwestern extermination company, received its first bedbug call in decades in 1995. “It started to snowball from there,” Plunkett’s technical director Jay Bruesch said. Last year, the company received 212 requests for bedbug extermination, and is already on pace to top last year’s numbers. “This hasn’t plateaued yet,” Bruesch said.
Plunkett’s recently invested in new technology to address the high infestation rates, including several massive heaters that can warm an infested area up to 130 degrees, killing bedbugs without having to destroy any personal belongings, furniture, or mattresses. But the treatments can cost several thousand dollars–well beyond what many households can afford.
At HOME Line‘s statewide tenant hotline, complaints about insect infestations are up about 37 percent over the past two years. The organization does not track bedbug calls separately, but HOME Line’s Mike Vraa said that a considerable number of these calls are bedbug-related. The non-profit agency has already received over fifty insect infestation complaints this year and expects the number will continue to increase.
Bedbug experts believe that the 1972 ban on the pesticide DDT and the rise in global travel over the past decade contributed to the resurgence. Some organizations, including the Minnesota Visiting Nurse Agency (MVNA), a nonprofit home health and public health care provider, suspect that the foreclosure crisis has worsened the situation. With more families, including both renters and homeowners, moving frequently, bedbugs can easily travel with them.
Bedbugs feed on human blood and tend to cluster on mattress crevices, where they emerge at night to eat. However, bedbugs can also quickly spread throughout an entire apartment complex, leaving telltale dark fecal spots, discarded skin, and egg cases on bed sheets and furniture.
Small, itchy red bumps from bedbug bites typically appear on the arms and neck. “You don’t notice them at first,” MVNA’s Amy Goodhue said. “Not everyone reacts to it in the same way. You may mistake it at first for being a mosquito bite.” Although in most cases, bedbug bites do not pose a serious medical risk, they can cause skin infections, particularly in children.
Bedbug infestation can financially devastate low-income households. MVNA started seeing occasional bedbug complaints several years ago. Nurses in the family services division now see one or two new bedbug infestations every week. “Like anyone else, [mothers are] pretty horrified,” Goodhue said. “They’re scared for their children.”
MVNA runs a “Community Caring” fund to assist low-income individuals with non-medical needs, including bedbug removal. The unique program provides money for families to seal their mattresses, rent a steam cleaner, or buy a new crib. However, funding remains limited, as the program relies on donations. “It’s very difficult to tell [families] what to do, but not to have the funding or the ability to do it,” Goodhue said.
Not everyone can afford to follow basic guidelines to prevent infestation. Experts recommend that people do not pick up furniture off the street or even purchase used furniture in a thrift store. “But for our families who are sleeping on floors, they’re willing to risk a mattress from the street rather than sleeping on the floor,” MVNA’s Michelle Lichtig said.
Low-income families also move more frequently, increasing their risk of encountering an infestation. However, in today’s housing market, even some wealthy families find themselves forced to move due to foreclosure. “I don’t think it’s a low-income problem so much as it is a moving problem,” Bruesch, of Plunkett’s, said.
Tenants also routinely encounter landlords who refuse to pay for an exterminator. HOME Line’s Vraa said that landlords often argue that the tenant caused the problem and should therefore have to cover the costs. But pinpointing the outbreak to one household is difficult, if not impossible. And unless the landlord can show that the tenant caused the infestation, either intentionally or through negligence, the law requires that the landlord pay for an exterminator, Vraa said.
If a landlord refuses, a tenant can file a written complaint with the landlord, set up a rent escrow account, and pay $55 to request a court hearing to force the landlord to pay for extermination costs. “Frankly, landlords need to realize that this is one of the costs of doing business,” Vraa said.
When Maximillian Regan and his girlfriend Valerie moved into separate apartments in the same complex near Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC) in January 2008, they spotted a few small bugs, but the couple assumed they were harmless. Then Valerie broke out into a rash and sought medical attention. After seeing several doctors, she received the diagnosis: bedbugs.
“I didn’t even know they existed,” Regan said. “I thought they were a medieval thing.”
The couple talked to the landlord, who agreed to pay for an exterminator. But Regan said the landlord did not want to pay for the most expensive treatments, and instead used cheaper, ineffective methods.
Regan said that his former neighbors also experienced infestations and could not afford to move or buy new furniture. “People who live there generally don’t have a lot of money,” he said. “When people throw their furniture out, even when it’s littered with bedbugs, someone will bring it back.”
After several months, Regan said the situation became unbearable. He was unable to sleep and failed out of a summer math course due to the stress. He tried to eradicate the bedbugs on his own, but was unsuccessful.
He spent most of the last month of his lease living in a hotel room. When Regan moved out in September, he threw away all of his furniture, tightly sealed up the rest of his belongings, put them in storage, and waited for the bedbugs to die before retrieving his possessions.
He then began the arduous process of meticulously inspecting every item. “We moved everything over piece by piece,” he said, including his large collection of books. “I pretty much went through page by page to find out if there were any around.” Some of his thickest books took five hours to inspect.
Despite all his efforts, Regan still experienced a small resurgence of bedbugs in his new apartment. Luckily, the infestation proved to be minimal and his landlord quickly sent over a skilled exterminator.
Regan’s apartment remains bedbug-free, but he struggles to avoid the mental picture of bedbugs waiting in his mattress to feed. “I swear I can feel them on me still, crawling on me at night,” he said.
Madeleine Baran is a freelance journalist specializing in labor and poverty issues. Her articles have appeared in The New York Daily News, Dollars & Sense, Clamor, The New Standard, and other publications.