California law requires that a landlord must ensure that a property is habitable before it is rented or leased. To a tenant, this means that the premises they rent or lease must have adequate living conditions. One of the conditions that can call habitability into questions, however, is a bed bug infestation.
The Health Risks of Bed Bugs
Bed bugs used to be a concern most prevalent in developing areas. However, in recent years, bed bugs have run rampant throughout the US. This increase has been mostly put down to the fact that bed bugs have developed strong resistance to many common pesticides. As such, infestations can occur even in the cleanest premises and can be incredibly difficult to eradicate. Bed bugs are small (a quarter of an inch long or smaller) insects that feed on human blood. They typically feed at night and hide in cracks and crevices found in furniture, bed clothes, and carpets during the day.
The EPA considers them a public health risk in that they pose numerous health risks that include:
- The potential for severe allergic reactions including anaphylaxis
- Secondary infections of the skin such as impetigo, ecthyma, and lymphangitis
- Mental health impacts such as anxiety, insomnia, and systemic reactions
California Habitability Requirements and Bed Bug Laws
As a serious health risk, California has passed laws regarding living conditions generally and bed bugs specifically. First, California requires that rental premises must be habitable, which includes being free from pests and vermin. Recently, as bed bug infestations have increased, California has enacted laws that are specific to bed bugs. These laws include provisions that:
- Prohibit landlords from showing or renting a unit that the landlord knows is infested with bed bugs
- Landlords must provide information to tenants regarding how to identify bed bug infestations and the importance of cooperation in prevention and treatment of infestations and of communicating with the landlord regarding an infestation
- Requires landlords to provide tenants with the procedure necessary to communicate suspected infestations
- Prohibit landlords from retaliating (raising rents or reducing services) against tenants who complain about bed bugs
- Requires tenants to cooperate with pest control operators who seek to enter their unit to inspect for bed bugs and
- Make pest control operator reports available for tenants after their units are inspected for bed bugs
Controlling Bed Bugs
Bed bug infestations are difficult to eliminate. This is primarily because the insects have developed resistance to many commonly used pesticides. It is also because the very nature of bed bugs can make them difficult to find (inasmuch as they hide in dark and difficult to access areas) and eliminate (they can live months without food and are easily transportable through everyday activities such as merely walking from a contaminated area to one that is not contaminated).
What to do in Case of an Infestation
First and foremost, a tenant needs to immediately alert the landlord to the problem. It is important to note that California law does not require landlords to inspect premises for bed bugs if they have not previously been reported. Therefore, without knowing about an infestation, a landlord has no reason to know that treatment must take place. Once the landlord is informed, the expectation is created that he or she will address the issue in a reasonable time. If the landlord fails to address the issue, the tenant has several options.
California law allows a tenant to take the issue into his or her own hands. While this may work for many issues that create uninhabitable conditions like a leaky roof, bed bug infestations are often a different proposition altogether. Even the EPA admits that eliminating a bed bug infestation is difficult and complex and requires, among other things, cooperation among neighbors if multiple units are impacted in the same building. Since bed bugs are so easily transported into common areas, often multiple units are, in fact, contaminated. If this route is undesirable or fails altogether, and the tenant believes that serious health risks exist, they may also choose to vacate the premises. This is a serious step and involves many factors before the decision is made. To this point, it is incumbent upon the tenant to make sure that any medical treatment is documented and that conditions in the apartment are well documented.
It has been estimated by some in the pest control industry that the San Francisco-Oakland area is in the top 20 for the worst bed bug infestations. There is little doubt that the problem is increasing in scope and that the risks that bed bugs pose to tenants is increasing in turn. Finally, it must be noted that even the cleanest property can become infested with the insects. Regardless of the underlying conditions or reasons, though, landlords are still required to take care of the infestation. If you are a tenant in the San Francisco, Oakland, or Santa Rosa area and you are having problems with bed bugs and can not get your landlord to resolve the issue, there are experts who can help you. The legal professionals at Willoughby Brod LLP have been helping tenants protect their rights for years. Give us a call today at 800-427-7020 or click here to set up your initial consultation and put our expertise to work protecting your rights as a tenant.
(image courtesy of Christopher Jolly)