New York's Bed Bug Blight Abates

CrainsNewYork.com
Sunday, January 1, 2012

New Yorkers have one more reason to celebrate the new year: Bedbugs are losing their bite.

The panic that gripped the city in 2010, when the nasty critters invaded every corner of the five boroughs-from people's homes and workplaces to trendy clothing shops like Victoria's Secret-is subsiding. City agencies that track the bloodsuckers and the exterminators who stamp them out are reporting fewer cases. Even ordinary New Yorkers are feeling less edgy about the scourge.

In fiscal 2011, bedbug violations in apartment buildings declined by 344 instances, to 4,481. Queens was the only borough to report an increase, with 17 more violations, for a total of 610, according to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. A violation occurs when inspectors find at least one bedbug.

From January through November 2011, the city's 311 help line received 22% fewer calls about bedbugs compared with the same period a year earlier, said the city's Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications, which tracks complaints and queries.

"Those numbers are probably the best gauge for how much bedbugs are in the overall consciousness of New Yorkers," said a spokesman for DOITT.

To be sure, bedbugs are still a big problem. Because they are introduced when people travel, hotels have been particularly hard hit and must remain especially vigilant. Another trouble spot: low-income housing units where landlords are not exterminating properly or are simply unable to get rid of the bugs as tenants reinfect the buildings.

"There is just not enough money to deal with bedbugs effectively at this level of housing," said Jody Gangloff-Kaufmann, an urban entomologist with the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future who also was the chairman of the city's Bed Bug Advisory Board. "I hate the idea of stigmatizing people who can't afford to deal with this, but it [continues to be] an issue of poverty," she added.

That was not the case more than a year ago, when bedbugs took up residence in exclusive neighborhoods, luxury hotels and high-end shops.

"I think people freaked out so much and got overly cautious that it's helped a little bit," said Alyssa Bleiberg, a public relations professional who had a bedbug outbreak in a former apartment several years ago. She has since educated herself on how to avoid getting them again.

Experts said that the city's education efforts-and people's anxiety levels-have paid off. The city set up a bedbug website that provides information on how to prevent, recognize and treat infestations. HPD has developed new training programs for its inspectors to help them better detect the insects. In November, HPD unleashed its latest weapons, Mickey and Nemo, two bedbug-sniffing beagles. Meanwhile, the state passed a law in 2010 that requires landlords to disclose any prior bedbug infestations in their buildings.

Hoteliers are also getting a handle on the problem.

AppleCore Hotels, which owns five budget properties in the city, outfitted its beds with bedbug-resistant mattress casings and implemented new inspection procedures, regularly examining electrical sockets, baseboards and bed frames for evidence of the pests. "The number of incidents has declined [at our hotels]," said chief executive Vijay Dandapani, "and guests are less anxious these days."

COUNTING ON THE NEXT PLAGUE

Exterminators lament the loss of a lucrative business.

"The extermination industry got access to millions of dollars," said Benett Pearlman, chief executive of Positive Pest Management in Whitestone, Queens, whose company has service contracts with 165 apartment buildings. "Now we are seeing a major drop in business. We go weeks without bedbug complaints."

As exterminators ruminate about their future, New Yorkers are turning their newfound knowledge into power.

Scott Keatley, who works with homeless people and regularly visits residents in low-income housing units, was terrified of bringing bugs home with him.

Now the director of Nourishing NYC has armed himself with prevention information and a new routine. At the end of a day when he feels he may have been exposed to the bugs, he puts his clothing in the dryer for 10 minutes after he gets home.

"It alleviated my fear," he said. "I feel more in control."