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New legislation targets bed bug infestations in Philadelphia

Posted: January 28, 2020

“Sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite” is more than just a bedtime rhyme for many Philadelphians afflicted by bed bug infestations. But thanks to new legislation passed last month that aims to reduce infestations of the itchy pest, the city’s residents could soon be snoozing more peacefully.
John Obermeyer, Purdue University

John Obermeyer, Purdue University

“We are the most infested city in the country and we are also one of the only that didn’t have any kind of a bed bug procedure,” said George Gould, senior attorney with Community Legal Services of Philadelphia.

To address Philadelphia’s bed bug problem, a partnership known as Philadelphians Against Bed Bugs (PhABB) was established in the Fall of 2016. The group is composed of members from the Pennsylvania Integrated Pest Management (PA IPM) program at Penn State, epidemiologists, lawyers, health care professionals, and concerned residents. PhABB worked with councilmember Mark Squilla to introduce a city-wide bed bug policy. The bill passed unanimously in the Philadelphia City Council on December 12, 2019 and was signed into law by Mayor Jim Kenney on December 30, 2019.

“It’s been a long process,” said Gould. “The whole thing has taken over five years. At the moment, we think the bill is a good start. We're going to monitor closely to see where things go.”

The new ordinance, a provision added to the Philadelphia Property Maintenance Code, will require tenants to report suspected bed bug infestations to their landlords. If tenants make a report within 365 days from the start of their lease, the legislation states that landlords will be fully responsible for remediation costs. However, if reported after this period, tenants will share the cost of remediation with the landlord.

Philadelphia’s ordinance is the only bed bug policy in the country that introduces a shared cost between landlords and tenants after a time limit. Critics say that the deadline is arbitrary—infestations can be difficult to detect in the early stages, and bed bugs are often misidentified. A shared responsibility for treatment costs could also deter some people from reporting the pest, and the bill is unclear exactly how costs are to be shared between tenant and landlord.

“The final bill was a compromise,” said Michelle Niedermeier, program coordinator for community integrated pest management at the PA IPM program at Penn State and member of PhABB. “There are definitely some things in it that we're not happy about. We know from research, that if you require tenants to report it [infestations], but then also require them to pay for it, they’re not going to report it, because they can't afford it. Unreported bed bug infestations can spread to other housing units. In the big picture it's more cost effective, it'll save the landlords money, it'll reduce infestations across the city—if landlords were just responsible for it in their buildings.”

The original version of the bill, first introduced to council in October 2019, required landlords to be fully responsible for bed bug remediation costs—without a time limit on reporting.

According to Gould, lobbying by landlord groups resulted in an amendment to the bill that introduced a 30-day reporting deadline. After long negotiations, councilmember Squilla later adjusted the reporting window to 90 days—and finally, to 365 days.

“Somewhere along the process the bill became a landlord–tenant issue,” said Michael Levy, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania. “But it’s not just rental properties affected by bed bugs. Homeowners are affected as well; as are institutions, businesses—just about everyone. The cost of treatment is extremely high, and, without help, many people will not be able to afford safe treatment of their homes and the bugs will continue to spread. We need a consolidated and continued effort, and we need funds to enforce the new policies as well as to subsidize treatment.”

The tiny insects can have huge impacts to human health and well-being. Bug bites often cause itching, secondary skin infections, and allergic reactions, and the pest can also affect mental health. People living with infestations often suffer sleeplessness, depression, and isolation. The stigma surrounding bed bugs can also take a financial toll on families because people are forced to miss work or school says Niedermeier.

According to Levy there are also indirect consequences of bed bugs that are often overlooked.

“Bed bug infestations are preventing homebound individuals—especially senior citizens, the chronically ill, and others who rely on home health services—from receiving care,” said Levy. “Home care providers are reluctant to enter infested houses. The loss of homecare means more individuals who might otherwise live independently are being left with no option but to enter managed care facilities.”

The new legislation also specifies that if tenants make a report within 180 days of discovering a bed bug infestation in an adjoining unit or rowhouse, the landlord will be responsible for investigation and remediation costs. According to Niedermeier, this provision is important in Philadelphia because much of the housing is in rowhouse communities and share common walls, meaning the bug can easily spread between homes.

The Philadelphia Department of Licences and Inspections (L&I) will be responsible for coordinating and enforcing the new policy, once it is enacted on January 1, 2021. PhABB will work with L&I to provide expert-led training to inspectors, advise on best management practices, and coordinate public outreach.

Solving a bed bug problem requires a multifaceted approach referred to as integrated pest management (IPM). The IPM approach considers control tactics that are effective, economical and safe to humans. An important part of any IPM program is an informed consumer who can identify a problem and know to report it immediately.

“There needs to be far greater educational outreach about bed bugs,” said Niedermeier. “Because they incite so much panic, and half of it is because folks read things online that aren't true, and there's just so much information and so many myths about what to do and what not to do.”

Under the new ordinance, landlords will be required to maintain a “bed bug control plan” that sets out prevention and control methods to deal with the pest. The plan must follow current best management practices that includes using a professional licensed pest exterminator who employ IPM strategies.

“The Philly law is less extensive than New York's, and the details of enforcement are still unclear,” said Levy. “If this bill is enforced, I think it will reduce infestations a little. A stronger bill, like New York's, might reduce them a lot, and a bill that includes support for safe treatment for homeowners who cannot afford it might be enough to really drive the bed bug epidemic down.”

According to Gould, Squilla promised to review the bill in the future to see whether the current provisions are effective at reducing bed bug infestations or if changes need to be made.

By Asher Jones