Caroline Allen had just moved into a studio apartment in West Philadelphia when she noticed a bug bite on her foot. She assumed a mosquito got her. But by the end of the week she had bites up and down her legs. When she found a crawling little brown bug, about the size of an apple seed, she called her landlord to confirm her fear:
The landlord sent in an exterminator, but the treatment didn’t take and the infestation got worse. She reached out to the Health Department and asked for an inspector to come out.
“They said they don’t deal with bedbugs because they don’t carry diseases,” Allen said. “I said, ‘This is a horrible infestation, and the landlord isn’t doing anything,’ and they didn’t care.”
Allen moved out a month later after having to pay a fee for ending her lease early. She and her partner moved into her parent’s house briefly and inadvertently transferred her problem to them.
Treating the family home, she said, cost $4,000.
All cities have bedbugs, but Philadelphia is the only one of the 10 most populated municipalities without clear rules for who is responsible or how to report complaints. Attempts to create a policy have gone nowhere because the city has balked at adding bedbug inspections to an already hefty caseload of complaints, and advocates for property owners made it clear they don’t want to be on the hook for expensive exterminations.
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“To this day, I don’t want to downplay PTSD, but it has messed with me for a very long time,” Allen said. “Whenever I get a mosquito bite I immediately think it’s bedbugs. People don’t realize how impossible they are to get rid of.”
Five years ago, City Council created a task force to study Philadelphia’s bedbug issue — after Councilman Mark Squilla confessed to colleagues and reporters his South Philadelphia home was full of the bloodsuckers.
None of the task force’s recommendations has been adopted into legislation.
“There are obviously bedbugs in the city, but no one wants to be in charge of bedbugs,” said Michelle Niedermeier, who chaired the task force and is now an administrator for Philadelphians Against Bed Bugs. “Buildings fall down and L&I has to deal with that. The Health Department is wrapped up in the opioid crisis, funds get shifted, but meanwhile, no one is taking seriously the impact it has on humans.”
Squilla said by email last week that a policy never materialized because the health commissioner said bedbugs weren’t a health issue and “didn’t want to be bothered.”
“We would need to force the issue without their buy-in,” Squilla said.
City spokeswoman Deana Gamble said a bedbug policy is in the works but would not provide details.
Bedbugs are small, wingless, brownish-red parasites. Female bugs lay up to five eggs a day and can survive for several months to a year without a meal. They tend to bite hands and feet. They don’t, in fact, transmit diseases.
They burrow in mattresses, furniture, outlets, walls and window sills and can travel through cracks in the wall, an advantage in Philadelphia, where 92 percent of housing is connected, said Niedermeier, programming coordinator for Pennsylvania’s integrated pest-management program.
Where do the pests hang?
Because there’s no formal way to report a bedbug incident in Philadelphia, there’s no official count of confirmed cases. A 2014 study by University of Pennsylvania entomologists found that in one South Philadelphia zip code, about 11 percent of homes had been affected.
Six Philadelphia pest companies contacted said their cases have grown every year for at least the last decade. The bugs had been largely eradicated by 1972, when the chemical DDT was banned.
“They’re everywhere,” said Rhonda Griffin, owner of Pest Free Maintenance Inc. “People are at their wit’s end. They’re doing things that are really crazy,”
Griffin said she’s walked into homes where people have set off bug bombs meant for roaches (useless on bedbugs) or thrown out mattresses in a panic and slept on the floor (which just makes it easier for the bugs to bite). She’s heard of people trying to heat their homes to kill the bugs and then accidentally setting the place on fire.
Bedbugs can hitch a ride on any person or suitcase and set up shop in any home regardless of how tidy or expensive it is. But people already dealing with poverty or health issues struggle more than those who can afford the costly treatments. Depending on square footage, a bedbug treatment can run between $500 and $2,000.
Dillon DeWitt of Liberty Community Connections Inc., coordinates home health care services for people with disabilities. He receives calls daily from clients who say their aides won’t come inside because of an infestation. They want to continue living independently, he said, but can’t afford the pest treatments.
“It’s heartbreaking,” DeWitt said. “These are people who really need help but their aides won’t come inside because of bedbugs.”
Who is responsible?
Philadelphia’s Property Maintenance Code requires landlords to provide a “safe and inhabitable” home,” free of pests and insects.” But the Department of Licenses and Inspections does not consider bedbugs to be its responsibility; rather, it concerns itself with pests, such as termite and carpenter ants, that damage buildings.
In most big cities, property owners are explicitly responsible for keeping homes and apartments bedbug-free. In New York City, inspectors and two bedbug-sniffing beagles respond to complaints and issue violations to landlords. Complaints in New York decreased from 9,618 in 2016 to 8,113 last year.
Victor Pinckney, a landlord and member of the Homeowners Association of Philadelphia, said he typically requires his tenants to pay for the treatments. “Most property owners are not putting bedbugs in tenants’ property,” said Pinckney, who was on the city task force. Any policy that makes property owners liable would likely mean rent hikes, he said. “We explained in the task force that then you’re making it harder for low- and moderate-income people to be able to find housing.”
The Pennsylvania Apartment Association also fought against legislation while on the task force and boasts about its success on its website: “The insects are not the only things that can hitchhike to other communities. Proposals for legislation have a way of catching on in other locales. We’ll continue our vigilance.”
Meanwhile, companies such as Evans Pest Control are growing.
Jeremy Evans, the company’s service manager, started his Wednesday morning in a Northeast Philadelphia rowhouse where an elderly woman, who did not want to be identified, discovered the infestation when her granddaughter slept over and got, as Evans put it, “eaten alive.”
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“Only about 60 percent of people react to the bites,” Evans said. “I’ve seen some bad arguments between couples, where she’s getting bitten but he isn’t, and that usually ends when I flip the mattress over.” Evans used a series of heaters to warm the house to 135 degrees and roast the bugs. The curb outside was lined with more than a dozen trash bags of clothing.
Evans suspects the house next door was the source of the bugs. People with connected properties are sometimes at the mercy of their neighbors. Sometimes because of embarrassment or fear neighbors won’t communicate at all or until the bugs get out of hand.
A business traveler’s nightmare
Shannon Sturtevant flew to Philadelphia from Arizona for a medical conference last year and says she got bedbugs at the Philadelphia Downtown Marriott. She has pictures of her legs covered in more than 100 bites.
Sturtevant was so alarmed that she called the Philadelphia Department of Health, but learned the department doesn’t respond to bedbug complaints. She wrote to Marriott’s corporate office, which said in emails shared with the Inquirer that an exterminator determined the room didn’t have bugs. Sturtevant, who said she spent the entire stay at the hotel, which also hosted the convention, asked to see the extermination report, but never heard back.
The city’s health department, at Sturtevant’s prompting, eventually sent a letter to Marriott’s corporate office but also never got a response, according to the email exchange.
Marriott spokeswoman Lucy Slosser said she had no direct knowledge of the incident but stressed the hotel takes “hygiene and sanitation very seriously.”
“Marriott has established very strict standards of cleanliness for all its hotels that either meet or exceed public health department regulations, including pest control,” Slosser said.
Sturtevant said that, since the incident, she’s avoided conferences in Philadelphia. “I couldn’t believe there was no consequence,” Sturtevant said. “The hotel has no obligation to comply or follow up with the department of health. I’m a business traveler. This happens to me while I’m at, in theory, a reputable hotel, and there’s just no accountability.”