Bed Bugs Put Bite on Springs Landlords, Renters

Gazette.com
Sunday, April 15, 2012

The diagnosis Jeannette Greer received during her visit to the Penrose Hospital emergency room in March was cellulitis, a skin infection that can have any number of causes.

But Greer says she knows the source of her infection: bedbugs. She started seeing them within hours of moving into her unit at Enfield Apartments in December, and despite numerous attempts by the property manager to eradicate the critters, they come back like a recurring nightmare, she says.

"I can't get eaten up like this again," says Greer, a 52-year-old Army veteran who suffers from diabetes and PTSD. "The stress is really bad."

Greer is trying to get out of her lease, get her deposit back and move, leaving her furniture and other belongings behind so she doesn't take bug-infested items with her. She and the management at Greccio Housing, which owns the apartment building, are trying to work things out; it's unclear how her situation will be resolved.

One thing is clear: She's not the only renter in Colorado Springs with bedbug problems, and with a recent surge in the number of renters and a seemingly unstoppable rise in bedbug cases, such landlord-tenant disputes are likely to increase, as well.

"I think probably every apartment community in town has had an outbreak at one time or another," says Pat Stanforth, senior vice president of Griffis/Blessing, a Colorado Springs real estate company that manages about 4,000 apartment units.

So, it pays for both sides to know their rights, responsibilities and a little bit about landlord-tenant laws. That's not usually a problem for many landlords, especially ones who have multiple properties. They tend to be savvy businesspeople who likely have a working relationship with an attorney.

Tenants, however, are usually in the dark about how to legally handle landlord problems. There is a Colorado law on their side that establishes a warranty of habitability - essentially a guarantee to tenants that the property they're renting is fit for human habitation. But if they don't know about it, or don't fully understand, it won't help their case.

"It's a complicated statute, and the notices the tenants have to give are specific," says Theresa Kilgore, managing attorney for the Colorado Legal Services office in Colorado Springs.
Sometimes, frustrated renters will stop paying rent, which could trigger an eviction, or they'll break their lease by moving out.

"Anytime a tenant has some sort of issue and has a concern about the issue, they need to look at the (warranty of habitability) statute and the lease, and read those together," says Amanda Halstead, a Denver real estate attorney. "But it's really important not to act on impulse, because you may lose the right you have or compromise those rights."

MORE THAN BEDBUGS CAN BITE

Bedbugs aren't the only issue to come between a tenant and a landlord. Renters have called various agencies and attorneys in town with complaints about mold, broken appliances, faulty furnaces, leaky roofs and whatever else can fall apart in a residence.

But bedbugs tend to be more intractable, making them a challenge for even the most diligent landlord to eradicate.

"It's very difficult to get rid of them," says Ken Lewis, code enforcement administrator for Colorado Springs. "The tenant and landlord have to cooperate with the exterminator. You can't just go in and spray like you do with roaches and call it good. And the hard part sometimes is getting everybody to do their part. If bedbugs are in an adjacent apartment, they could be coming through the cracks."

Even if the bedbugs are eradicated, all it takes is one tenant to move in with small colony of bedbugs tucked into an old mattress or secondhand couch.

That may be what has happened where Greer lives. She says she was told her apartment was bedbug-free when she moved in, but within hours, she started seeing them. One of her neighbors later told her that a former tenant had bedbugs but didn't report them. And then, he said, they spread.

"Me, personally, I think they're in the plumbing," says Greer's neighbor, who asked not to be identified for fear of getting evicted. "We've seen quite a few."

Greccio, a nonprofit that provides affordable housing to low- and moderate-income people, has a two-tier approach to fighting bedbugs, says executive director Lee Patke. The first involves giving residents an "action item" sheet that lays out their bedbug-fighting tasks, such as frequent vacuuming and keeping the floors uncluttered. Then, Greccio brings in an extermination company to spray over several months. The second tier involves bringing in a team to help people who, for whatever reason, might not be able to follow the cleaning protocol.

Greccio also encourages people not to buy secondhand mattresses or couches.
"Someone with limited resources might think it's a great deal, but all of a sudden, we have bedbugs introduced into the apartment complex, and they can potentially migrate from apartment to apartment," Patke says.

Greer says she follows the rules, wears surgical booties when she visits other apartments, and has had her apartment sprayed four times, but to no avail.

"I vacuum every day. There's no clutter in my house," she says. "I just want to get out and get my deposit back."

OPTIONS FOR HELP ABOUND


Greer and others in the same situation have several options, the first being to work with the landlord to resolve the problem.

"Most residents are very reasonable," says Stanforth. "Sometimes, though, people don't give you a realistic time frame to try to correct the problem. Sometimes, it's just easier to allow them to break the lease."

Tenants whose landlords refuse to deal with bedbug problems can also call the city code enforcement office.

"The code allows us to get after the manager or owner and hire a licensed exterminator," Lewis says.

When all else fails, it may be time to contact an attorney. For low-income renters, Colorado Legal Services might seem the best option, but the nonprofit is not inclined to take the cases, mostly because it's short-staffed, said staff attorney Steve Flynn. Still, it's worth a call, Kilgore says, because there could be instances where they might accept the case.

Kilgore notes that tenants who sue and win can recoup attorneys fees and other expenses, so contacting a private attorney may be the best option. It is, however, a gamble, should they lose.

"The tenant has so much at risk when there's a dispute with a landlord, meaning they could be homeless" Flynn says.