AUGUSTA — With an infestation of bedbugs still being fought in two Water Street boarding houses and reports of bedbugs in other rental housing in the city, experts say tenants and landlords must work together to beat the bugs.

Augusta Code Enforcement Officer Robert Overton on Thursday inspected the shared common areas of boarding houses at 382 and 384 Water St., where a bedbug infestation was discovered about three weeks ago, and found live bedbugs in the buildings. He said he inspected only the buildings’ common areas, such as hallways and bathrooms, but still found numerous live bedbugs.

However, he said the infestation was “certainly not as severe” as it was when officials first came upon it, and the buildings had been sprayed with bedbug-killing chemicals for the second time May 14.

“It’s still a pretty heavy infestation. You wouldn’t typically see them outside of people’s living areas,” Overton said. “I spoke with a handful of tenants, who all reported they were not noticing as many bugs, but there were still some. I pointed out to them the need to be cooperative with the pest control folks to help manage this.”

He said all seemed eager to get rid of the problem and that Larry Fleury, who owns both properties, “indicated he is doing everything he needs to be doing.”

Overton said he’s received numerous reports of bedbugs elsewhere in the city since the infestation first came to light. He said none of the newly reported infestations are as severe as at the two Water Street buildings, where city officials said bedbug “shells” — their shed exoskeletons — were an inch deep and covering furniture, and some tenants had bedbugs in between the layers of their clothing.

Overton and pest control experts said this week it will take sustained effort and cooperation between landlords and tenants, working with pest control workers, to get rid of bedbugs.

Often, he said, it can be the tenant who fails to act.

“There are certainly situations where the landlord doesn’t take all the necessary action,” Overton said. “But in most cases I see, it doesn’t seem like the tenant is doing their part. The bedbugs aren’t going away, because tenants aren’t doing what they should be doing.”

In some instances, Overton said, he sees apartments “with no housekeeping taking place in a unit.”

A group of interested parties, including state and city officials, pest control company representatives, and landlords and property managers, met Friday in Augusta to discuss the issue. That included what should, and shouldn’t, be in a bedbug ordinance city officials plan to adopt, a permanent version of an emergency ordinance the Augusta City Council adopted May 5 to give city officials enforcement tools to deal with the bedbug infestation in rental housing.

TENANT RESPONSIBILITY

City and state officials at the meeting said some tenants are hesitant to report discovering bedbugs in their apartments, often out of fear of being evicted if they complain. They said some tenants in bedbug-infested buildings have been incarcerated previously or homeless, and they are worried they might end up without a place to live. And the later a bedbug infestation is reported, the harder it will be to get rid of it, Mike Peaslee, a certified entomologist and technical manager for Modern Pest Services, and Parker Adams, of Pine State Pest Solutions, said Friday.

Once bedbugs are reported and landlords hire pest control to get rid of them, tenants need to follow the recommendations of pest control experts when the experts come to treat their buildings, including cleaning and removing clutter, washing and drying their clothes at high heat, and removing items under and on their beds so treatment can be applied.

“In our experience, bedbugs are pervasive across the city,” said Amanda Bartlett, executive director of the Augusta Housing Authority. “If you have tenants who don’t comply (with steps to get rid of bedbugs), it makes it impossible for landlords to get rid of the problems. There should be a conversation about the tenant responsibility side.”

She said state law allows landlords, if a tenant is not following protocol to get rid of bedbugs, to take court action to have tenants held financially responsible for bedbug elimination costs.

Local landlord Tim Gooch said most low-income tenants have a hard time paying rent, so he never expects them to be able to help pay for solving a bedbug problem. He said a lot of landlords look at the cost of pest control for bedbugs as part of the cost of doing business.

The city ordinance adopted as an emergency puts the responsibility of paying for removal of bedbugs on landlords.

Getting rid of bedbugs can be difficult because they tend to hide and are resilient creatures. It also can be expensive.

Overton said he is aware of one situation in which one unit of a four-unit apartment building had a small number of bedbugs. The landlord hired a large pest control company to apply initial heat treatment to the infested apartment, and then six months of regular chemical treatments for all four units. He said he received an invoice for $6,000 for those services.

NOT JUST LOW-INCOME

Bedbugs, officials said, can happen to anyone.

That isn’t news to Chelle McMaster, a paralegal and office manager at an Augusta law firm, who said her otherwise well-kept Winthrop Street apartment has been treated for bedbugs four times since January. Each time it was treated, she said, she and her adult daughter, Brooke Fournier, had to wash every piece of clothing and bedding they own, strip down their beds and move their furniture away from walls so their apartment could be treated with chemicals.

In the summer of 2015, a neighboring tenant put a bedbug-infested mattress outside their apartment building at 58 Winthrop St., next to a dumpster.

McMaster spoke to her neighbor then and searched her apartment for bedbugs and laundered everything in her apartment. Not finding any bedbugs, she said she assumed it was an isolated incident and the bugs hadn’t spread, so she didn’t report it.

Then in January of this year, her daughter found a bedbug crawling on her. She reported it to her property manager. Two days later, her daughter woke up at midnight with three welts she thinks were from bedbug bites. She couldn’t reach her property manager, so she called her landlord, S.J.S.A. Housing owner Sid Moskowitz, who assured her he would instruct the property manager to deal with her situation as soon as possible.

Her apartment was sprayed Jan. 14, and again with a follow-up treatment Jan. 28.

On April 2, McMaster said she found a live bedbug crawling up the curtain of her dining room. So the treatment routine was repeated, two spray treatments, weeks apart, and McMaster and her daughter had to strip down bedding and wash all their clothing each time.

She said the landlord paid for the chemical treatments, but she had to pay for the cost of laundering.

She said the approximately 14-unit apartment building is older, and bedbugs surely can pass from one apartment to another. She said the landlord and the property manager should have treated every unit, not just one, when bedbugs were reported.

McMaster said she’s moving out, to a duplex she is buying in Gardiner. She’s afraid she might take bedbugs with her, in her belongings, to her new home.

Moskowitz, reached by email, said “the only comments I will make is that when any pests are reported, we promptly call in licensed and experienced contractors, to investigate and then treat any conditions found, pursuant to their recommended remedy. They are directed to keep at it until conditions are cleared. Sometimes this requires multiple efforts to complete.”

City Manager William Bridgeo said councilor’s adoption on May 5 of the emergency ordinance was a response to the infestation of the two Water Street boarding houses. He said city officials will take input from the group that met Friday to draft a permanent bedbug ordinance.

“Hopefully, we can find a balance so we don’t create undue, unfair hardships on landlords, while at the same time, we protect the public,” Bridgeo said, describing the infestation as a public health concern.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj


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