Rules on breaking lease over bedbugs

Chicago Tribune
Friday, July 15, 2011

Q: We've discovered a few bedbugs in our new apartment, crawling out of the seams along the floor. We're freaked out! The landlord says it's no big deal, and that he'll have an exterminator come by early next week. We haven't even unpacked; we're tempted to move out, but that would be breaking a yearlong lease that has just started. Is there any legal justification for us to do this?

A: Because you don't mention any encounters before moving to your new home, those bugs were probably in the apartment before you moved in. Although it's possible that they came with you and your boxes (perhaps they hung out in the mover's van and hitched a ride on your stuff), the more reasonable explanation is that they have been waiting in the walls of this apartment since the last resident left. Or, they've migrated to your apartment from an adjoining unit. The point is, the stronger your argument that you didn't bring the critters into the apartment, the stronger your right to take action.

Tenants in every state but Arkansas are entitled to "fit and habitable" housing, which includes the absence of vermin. Bedbug infestations are unquestionably vermin. Most of the time, however, it's difficult to determine who (landlord, tenant, neighbor, or some other visitor) introduced the bugs. But when it's clear that they were there from the outset of your tenancy, you're in a good position to claim that the rental was not initially fit and habitable, through no fault of yours. In that event, tenants can refuse to move into a substandard rental and should not be held to the lease.

It's no different than if you were to hand the landlord a rubber check for the first month's rent: Upon discovering that the check bounced, the landlord would not have to hand over the keys. So too with an unlivable apartment. If it doesn't pass habitability standards, you don't have to take it, and the deal's off.

But you have moved in, even though you're sitting amid boxes. This changes things a bit. Once you've taken possession, you have to give the landlord a reasonable time to fix the habitability problem, if possible. Bedbug infestations can be addressed, and aggressive approaches often solve the problem. The key question here is: What is a reasonable time to give the landlord? Will sending in the professionals "next week" suffice?

Until recently, bedbugs were not considered a serious problem. Yes, they are annoying, creepy and uncomfortable, with the ability to inflict unsightly and itchy bites, but not a serious health threat. Unlike lead paint, asbestos and the mycotoxins from a few molds, they were thought to be relatively harmless. Indeed, the Centers for Disease Control(cdc.gov/parasites/bedbugs) still tells us, "Bed bugs, a problem worldwide, are resurging, causing property loss, expense, and inconvenience. The good news is that bed bugs do not transmit disease."

But this common wisdom may be evolving. In an advance electronic publication of an article slated to appear in Emerging Infections Diseases, researchers in Vancouver, Canada, reported the discovery of particularly nasty bacterium on bedbugs that were taken from patients admitted to an inner-city hospital. The bugs were carrying methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus faecium (VRE). These bacteria cause serious staph infections that are very resistant to antibiotics.

The study's authors concluded that they might have discovered a new pathway, or vector, for the transmission of these bacteria. Much like the mosquito carries malaria, perhaps the bedbug carries these bacteria, dropping them off as it bites its human host. However, further study is needed to determine whether the bugs are simple transmitters or have the staph infection themselves, and even whether the bugs infected the humans or the other way around. The researchers also noted that their findings occurred in an area of dense, poor housing, whose residents already had a high incidence of MRSA infections.

The implications of this study for landlords and tenants are significant. A widespread bedbug infestation has always qualified as a habitability problem, but these findings make the bugs' appearance potentially much more dangerous than previously thought. If they are capable of spreading disease, the speed with which landlords should deal with them goes up. Maybe sending in an exterminator "next week" is no more reasonable than saying, "I'll deal with that gas leak tomorrow."