Little Bedbugs, Big Pain for City Housing

Austin American-Statesman
Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Housing Authority of the City of Austin has spent nearly $40,000 over the past year fighting bedbugs in 15 of its 19 facilities.

Since September 2010, the authority has been treating the insects, whose bites leave itchy red welts on the skin. Over the past year, 166 of the housing authority's 1,928 units have been treated for bedbugs, said Sylvia Blanco , vice president of housing and community development for the agency.

"There are peaks and valleys," Blanco said. "It also depends on the season, but right now we're having a spike because people are trying to get out of the heat. They're staying indoors, and sometimes they're bringing the bugs with them."

Bedbug infestations in recent years have increased dramatically all over the country. The bugs have wreaked havoc in all kinds of buildings: luxury hotels, department stores and private homes, to name a few. Locally, they've hit student apartments around the University of Texas and the Austin State Supported Living Center, which houses people with intellectual disabilities. Austin Travis Integral Care has spent $14,000 over the past year battling the bugs in seven of its 46 properties for people with mental illness.

The Austin housing authority contracts with Oliver Termite and Pest Control for monthly treatments for roaches, ants and other insects at all its housing facilities, Blanco said. The company sprays for bedbugs after receiving a complaint from residents. Each apartment generally gets one treatment, which could include two or three visits from the exterminator, Blanco said.

"Maybe on occasion it could take a second treatment," she said. "But typically it's pretty effective in the first treatment."

If the bugs come back after the warranty period, usually 30 days after the last treatment, residents are required to pay for additional service, Blanco said. That costs residents between $175 and $265 . The pest control company also speaks with residents extensively on ways to avoid a reinfestation, such as inspecting all furniture before bringing it into the apartment.

The housing authority does not deny treatment to anyone and tries to be flexible when charging residents, all of whom are low-income, Blanco said. Many people pay off the bill through a payment plan.

Bedbugs are notoriously hard to get rid of because they are nocturnal and elusive and can go more than a year without eating. They hide in crevices, in furniture, even in books. In apartment complexes, they can easily travel from unit to unit, said Missy Henriksen, spokeswoman for the National Pest Management Association in Virginia.

"They will crawl through the baseboards, cracks in the walls and the electrical outlets," she said.

Even the most extensive treatments can be ineffective. The Fort Worth Housing Authority spent hundreds of thousands of dollars last year battling bedbugs in one apartment complex - even paying to replace carpets and treat residents' belongings - but still had to permanently shutter the building when the bugs refused to surrender. More than 200 residents had to move.

Simmie Burke, 68 , said he had bedbugs about a year ago in his third-floor home at Austin's Lakeside Apartments, a Trinity Street complex owned by the housing authority. The pest control company sprayed, he said, which slowed the insects down. But when the insects returned a few weeks later, Burke decided to battle the bugs on his own, treating the apartment and all of his belongings with pesticide .

"A lot of people have them, but they're ashamed," Burke said. "They shouldn't be. It's not about hygiene. They're all over the place."