Bed Bugs - Interview with Martha Lewis

After the recent Bed Bug Conference organized by in part by the Canadian Pest Management Association I spoke with Martha Lewis, the Executive Director of TRAC. TRAC, or the Tenants Resource and Advisory Centre is a 26 year old educational charity funded by the BC Law Foundation, the City of Vancouver and the Province of BC to provide information about tenancy law. Martha was one of the keynote speakers at the conference.

Bill Goold: Martha, I was surprised to see a lawyer speaking at the conference. It was great to have your perspective on the problem.

Martha Lewis: At TRAC we’ve been watching the spread of bedbugs and the increase in litigation, especially in the United States. I was speaking because it’s important for landlords to understand their rights and responsibilities, as well as those of their tenants.

BG: I know it’s getting to be a huge problem, what are some of the issues from your perspective?

ML: In a best case scenario, where you have an accidental infestation, a good tenant and a professional landlord then the issue  is relatively cut and dried, and unfortunately it’s up to the landlord to remediate the problem.

BG: We’ll get back to remediation in a second. What do mean by accidental infestation?

ML: As you know bedbugs are hitchhikers. If the tenant happened to brush up against someone with some bedbug eggs on their coat, and then transfered them home, I would consider that an accidental infestation.

BG: Where else can they come from? Is a there an obvious source?

ML: Yes, unfortunately, and that source is “free” furniture, found on the side of the road, or at yard sales, and on Craigslist. 

BG: I can see that would be an excellent way for the bugs to spread! How can a landlord protect himself against that kind of infestation.

ML: The best defense is education. At TRAC we think that it’s the # 1 issue in regards to bedbugs. If landlords and tenants understand how the bugs are spread, we think that there is a chance we can make some progress in halting their spread.

There are a lot of misperceptions about the bugs and we find that there are certain demographics that have the most problem with the bugs. One of the surprising ones is seniors. They tend to be ashamed at having bugs, and a real issue is fear of being put out of their apartments, either by the landlord, or by their own children who may view the bugs as an indication that their parents are no longer able to take care of themselves.

Another demographic that is prone to being infected are tenants with mental health issues. Many of them are hoarders who through their behaviours will infect and re-infect a tenanted property by picking up roadside “treasures”.

BG: What can a landlord do in that case?

ML: Unfortunately, the only thing a tenant can do is issue a formal notice to the tenant, and then proceed with an eviction notice. The problem is that it is difficult to prove that the tenant is the actual cause of the re-infestation, and difficult to get witnesses to attest to the behaviours. The Residential Tenancy Office is concerned with “reasonableness” of both parties: Did the tenant immediately inform the landlord of the problem? Did the landlord treat the infestation properly? Did the tenant make every effort to keep out the bugs? Those are the kind of questions that the RTO will ask in any hearing.

BG: It all sounds very complicated.

ML: Complicated and expensive. The cost of treating a single suite is in the hundreds of dollars, and landlords will eventually have to pass those costs on to their tenants. We’re very concerned about the spread of the bedbugs and how it’s going to affect both the landlord and the tenant in the future. Since the bugs have co-evolved with humans, and have a set of behaviours that we can’t change, we feel that the only real solution to the problem is working with tenants and landlords to change their behaviours!

BG: Thanks for the information Martha. I don’t know what it is, but with all this talk of bedbugs I’m feeling a little itchy....