By SAMANTHA GROSS
NEW YORK (AP) — Despite the itchy rise to prominence of bedbugs around New York City, officials have long been limited in what they could do to get negligent landlords to address the spread of the minuscule critters. On Tuesday, city officials announced a policy change that could leave landlords facing harsher penalties.
While the apple-seed-size bugs are not considered a medical threat, city officials will begin issuing Health Department abatement orders that carry stiffer possible penalties than the violations handed out by housing officials, the City Council and housing and health officials announced.
The change means that officials can lay out guidelines for the kind of pest control strategies landlords should adopt and can require landlords to treat the apartments surrounding the one with the infestation.
Landlords that don’t comply could be fined by the city’s Environmental Control Board and, if they don’t pay up, the city could ultimately take liens out on the properties that can be sold to collectors.
“We are going to be very explicit with landlords about what we expect them to do to eradicate bedbugs from their apartments,” said City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. “This is going to help us identify which landlords are delinquent, neglectful, don’t really care if their tenants are getting bit up.”
The policy shift still won’t necessarily lead to immediate relief for residents facing a too-close encounter with the unwanted bedfellows. Officials hope it will increase pressure on landlords, but the inspection and enforcement process can be lengthy, and every day that an infestation continues increases the risk that the blood-sucking bugs will spread to another city location.
That’s a concern to city officials who have seen rising reports of the critters in movie theaters, hotels and clothing stores, worrying residents and even scaring off some of the visitors who make up the city’s $30 billion tourism industry. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said he’s concerned about the effect of the hysteria on the city’s reputation.
Despite those worries, city health officials say the bugs cause nothing more than anxiety, stress and itching. Since the city steps in to make emergency repairs only for housing problems they believe pose an immediate health threat, the only option for suffering residents with unresponsive landlords has been to take them to housing court.
Housing court allows tenants to confront their landlords directly, and moving enforcement outside of the court could make it more difficult for tenants to present their case, warned Legal Aid housing lawyer Ellen Davidson.
Tuesday’s rule change was announced along with the launch of a City Council-sponsored informational website meant to help city residents and visitors protect themselves from the bugs and identify and eradicate them if they do become a problem.
The city council is spending $500,000 on the website and other bedbug initiatives, including buying two bedbug-sniffing dogs and retraining the city’s housing inspectors in how to spot the tiny creatures. Recently, Quinn and other council members asked the federal government for more money to eradicate the bugs from public housing.
The bugs have become one of the most common reasons for calls to the city’s 311 information and complaint line, and the city’s housing agency found 4,808 bedbug violations in city apartments last fiscal year, up from 82 violations six years earlier.
Officials say the rise may be due in part to increased public awareness, but sightings of the bugs have increased nationwide in recent years. Experts have theorized that an increase in global travel and the banning of certain pesticides may be partly responsible for their spread.