Uncovering JAPA

Are Bed Bugs a Planning Issue?

Think bed bugs aren’t a planning issue?

In “They’re Back: Municipal Responses to the Resurgence of Bed Bugs Infestations,” Daniel Schneider argues that the pests are an underappreciated threat to housing affordability and public health.

In his Journal of the American Planning Association article (Vol. 85, No. 2), Schneider examined ordinances from more than 8,000 local governments and found that municipalities do not always consider bed bugs to be pests, thereby limiting what they can do. Pressure from apartment-owners associations has hampered municipal responses.

But several cities, among them Chicago and San Francisco, are leading the way in providing coordinated responses. Such comprehensive ordinances need to protect tenants, deal with the travel sector, and also cover owner-occupiers.

Planners have a role in these more comprehensive approaches to bed bug management.

The Stigma of Bed Bugs

The stigma of bed bugs is closely associated with rental properties. Schneider's article begins with the case of an Iowa couple who complained to their landlord about bed bugs. When they withheld rent payments, their landlord began the eviction process.

The renters appeared in court with a jar of bed bugs to prove that the residence was infested. The judge cleared the courtroom out of fear of the bed bugs and ruled in favor of the landlord. The couple’s belongings were later removed from the property by the sheriff, leaving them homeless.

How could renters be punished for being forced to live with a bed bug infestation? This demonstrates the ambiguous status of bed bug infestations within municipal ordinances.

The ambiguity comes in part, Schneider writes, because “there is no evidence that bed bugs transmit disease in the ‘wild,’” and therefore, “many public health authorities do not recognize [bed bugs] as public health threats.”

Despite this, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers bed bugs to be, “a pest of significant public health importance.” The presence of bed bugs hampers habitability and strikes fear in urban residents. If bed bugs were simply inconvenient, the judge in the Iowa case described earlier would not have cleared the courtroom. Bed bugs are pests and should be considered as such.

Bugs and Habitability Ordinances

Bed bug infestations were much more common in the 19th century. At that time, urban renters were responsible for identifying problems with the property before entering into a contract. Subsequent infestations of any insects or vermin could cause renters to be evicted.

In 1972, the Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act was approved by the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws. This act incorporated the implied warranty of habitability and required that landlords keep their properties compliant with housing codes. It also requires that rental properties are, “free from insect and rodent infestations."

Twenty-one states have integrated this act into their ordinances. However, bed bug infestations are not always covered by these codes. Bed bugs are insects but are not always treated as such. Without bed bugs being considered pests, infestations continue to slip through holes in the codes.

Most current ordinances are in this tradition, addressing infestations in landlord-tenant situations.

Is solving bed bug infestations is the responsibility of a landlord, like rat and termite infestations, or the responsibility of the resident?

Too often it is the resident, and those who try to solve the infestation themselves could spend more than $1,000. Many residents may not be able to afford this price.

Because of this, residents throw away infested furniture or treat the infestation with chemicals like kerosene. Both of these actions could cause several unintended public consequences.

Comprehensive City Responses

So what type of ordinances are needed? How can a city develop a comprehensive approach to bed bug infestations?

Some cities continue to not address this issue. Some interpret existing ordinances to include bed bugs. Other cities have taken steps to explicitly add bed bugs to the list of pests or vermin. Only a few cities have implemented comprehensive ordinances that address bed bug infestations. These cities include large cities like Chicago and San Francisco, and small ones like Flemingsburg, Kentucky.

In comprehensive ordinances, health commissioners can gain enforcement authority to regulate rules concerning bed bugs. Landlords could be required to exterminate bed bugs in an infected unit and others that are attached. This focus on landlord-tenant property arrangements does not address bed bug infestations in owner-occupied properties, however.

Not understanding and addressing all infestations will prevent cities from truly tackling the problem. Schneider offers this as an important reason that planners should care about bed bugs. Municipal ordinances, codes, and data collection need to go much further to offer a more complete understanding of this issue.

Best practices for municipal ordinances addressing bed bug infestations. From "They're Back," JAPA Vol. 85, No. 2.

Best practices for municipal ordinances addressing bed bug infestations. From "They're Back," JAPA Vol. 85, No. 2.

Planners have the capacity to tackle bed bugs comprehensively. It requires coordination across many stakeholders, quantitative analysis, and use of public sector ordinances to manage this issue. For those reasons, planners are uniquely equipped for the task.

Cities must move beyond only questioning the responsibility of a landlord with a tenant-occupied residence. While the landlord should be held responsible, a bed bug infestation in an owner-occupied residence is just as important.

Both have the ability to cause further infestation, other public health crises, a city’s reputation, desirability, and housing affordability.

Bed bugs are pests. If cities want to attract new residents and planners want those residents to thrive in urban environments, a coordinated response to bed bugs is necessary.

Top image: Getty Images photo.


About the Author
Laier-Rayshon Smith is a Master in Urban Planning candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

August 8, 2019

By Laier-Rayshon Smith