From Insects to Eviction Threats: One Tenant’s Battle with Bed Bugs and Landlord Mismanagement

Many city-dwellers are aware that they are at risk of a bed bug infestation, but no one expects it to happen to them–and few are prepared for the toll that it can take. At MPAC, we have heard many accounts of the emotional, physical, and financial struggle that comes with a bed bug infestation, but this story hits particularly close to home. Former MPAC intern and recent college grad Ellicia, 23, and her navy veteran fiancé Garrett, 27, had recently moved into a studio apartment in a multi-unit building near Chicago’s Uptown/Edgewater border when they began experiencing a bed bug infestation that threatened their property, wellbeing, and eventually their home. Ellie has chosen to share her experience both as a cautionary tale to others and to speak out against mismanagement by landlords who may try to take advantage of low-income tenants and fail to address the pest in compliance with Chicago’s Bed Bug Ordinance. MPAC staff member Leandra Trudeau interviewed Ellie about her experience.

MPAC: Thanks for doing this interview. We’re very sorry to hear about your ongoing bed bug and landlord issues. To begin, can you tell me how you come to realize you had bed bugs?

Ellie: We moved in in July, and at first, everything seemed fine. We found a few beetles here and there, but not bed bugs. Eventually, the beetles in the kitchen got really bad and an exterminator was sent in October. Fast forward to November, and we began seeing little bugs crawling on the wall in our bedroom. Due to my past internship with MPAC, I was suspicious that they might be bed bugs. We flipped over the mattress and found more bugs and the spots that are their fecal matter. That’s how we knew it was bed bugs.

MPAC: Do you know of any other infestations in your building?

Ellie: I don’t know of other bed bug infestations, but all of our neighbors have issues with bugs in the building, especially the beetles we have in the kitchen. Our building is notorious for bug issues. Several neighbors have gotten lawyers involved and broken their leases.

MPAC: That’s awful. Did your landlord disclose any infestations before you signed the lease?

Ellie: No, they didn’t disclose anything.

MPAC: So what did you do when you realized you had bed bugs?

Ellie: As soon as we noticed the bed bugs, we sent a formal written notice to our property manager. She didn’t respond within the 10 days that she is required to by [Chicago’s bed bug ordinance]. We had to chase her down instead. Two weeks after, they sprayed for the bed bugs, but during that delay the bed bugs had multiplied astronomically. I also bought a bed cover and some different products – EcoDefense bed bug killer, and Raid for the beetles in the kitchen.

MPAC: Did a licensed Pest Control Operator do the pesticide application?

Ellie: Yes, it was a licensed Pest Control Operator. However, they didn’t do their job according to the law. Legally according to the Chicago Bed Bug Ordinance, they have to inspect the units above, below, and on either side of ours as well, but they didn’t inspect the other units. I asked him if he had inspected the other units, and he said, “No, I haven’t heard anything, so I’m going to leave it alone for now.” I told him I could see where the bed bugs are coming from–through the wall from the unit to the right of ours. The Pest Control Operator said, “Yeah, they probably do have bed bugs, but I haven’t been told anything.” So he wouldn’t inspect any other units.

MPAC: How many times have they come to spray? Was it effective?

Ellie: They’ve sprayed two times and they will have to come back a third time. No, it hasn’t gotten rid of the bed bugs, and the product I bought hasn’t worked either. After they came to spray for the first time, bed bugs were still coming out of the wall.

MPAC: Are you aware of an existing Integrated Pest Management Plan for your building?

Ellie: No I am not.

MPAC: And aside from spraying, did your property manager or landlord provide you with any resources to help you deal with the bed bug problem?

Ellie: No, they did not.

MPAC: How have the bed bugs impacted your well being–physically, emotionally, and financially?

Ellie: My fiancée Garret’s parents gave us a beautiful, king-sized memory foam mattress as an engagement/moving in present, which was completely destroyed. We also had a large book collection, including first editions of books like Harry Potter and the Chronicles of Narnia, which were all destroyed as well. My back was eaten up—I had to buy creams for it—and I still have scars. Emotionally, I can’t feel comfortable in my own apartment and I am constantly stressed out and anxious due to the problems with my landlord, who is trying to intimidate us into leaving the building.

MPAC: Tell me more about what’s been happening with your landlord.

Ellie: Because they aren’t following the law—they waited two weeks to start spraying and wouldn’t have the units surrounding ours inspected—the problem has gotten much worse and it has impacted us financially. We contacted Midwest Pesticide Action Center and the Metropolitan Tenants Organization [abbreviated MTO] asking what we could do. MTO told us that we are within our rights to withhold partial rent. We had MTO guide us through that process to make sure we did everything by the book so we couldn’t get in trouble for withholding rent. We sent a notice to our landlord who is based in the suburbs that we were withholding $450, which is about 60% of our rent, to compensate for damages. The damages are actually more, but we only decided to only withhold 60% to show good faith to our landlord.

MPAC: And did you hear anything back?

Ellie: No, it was radio silence. Everything seemed fine, until the other day we found a 5 day notice on our door saying that we had 5 days to pay the amount we withheld or they would begin proceeding with eviction. And that’s illegal. According to Chicago’s Residential Landlord Tenant Ordinance, it’s illegal for them to try to threaten or intimidate us out of the building because that is an act of retaliation.

MPAC: Were you aware of the Chicago Bed Bug Ordinance before you experienced your bed bug problem?

Ellie: Yes, I was previously aware of the Ordinance because of my time as an intern at MPAC.

MPAC: And in your opinion, did the fact that Chicago has an ordinance help you deal with your bed bug problem?

Ellie: That’s difficult to answer. I would say yes because it required my landlord to spray, but they didn’t follow smaller parts of the Ordinance such as inspecting and treating adjoining units for infestations, which caused the bed bugs to return and for this issue to spiral out of control. Furthermore, when I try to contact upper management, they either ignore me completely or seem to have a million excuses for the current situation. In addition, threatening us with eviction for withholding partial rent and trying to intimidate us out of the building is illegal. I wish the Ordinance held these property management companies/landlords more accountable, because after doing some research I’ve learned this management company is notorious for having major bug issues even beyond bed bugs in all of its buildings. I question why this has gone on for so long. It should have stopped by now.

MPAC: Where are you at with the problem currently, and what will you do next?

Ellie: I was trying to avoid this, but we will probably have to get a lawyer involved, especially if they are threatening us with eviction. We may also have to break the lease. I feel unsafe and uncomfortable in my own building because I know we aren’t wanted there by management. We’re trying to find a lawyer who is on a sliding scale. I’m a recent grad just starting out in my career and my fiancée is a recent veteran—he just got out of the military in July and he has to restart his career as a civilian from scratch. When you’re low income like we are right now, it’s easy for a big landlord to take advantage of you because you don’t have the resources to hire lawyers.

MPAC: Is there anything more you would have liked regulatory authorities to do to help people in your situation?

Ellie: We reported the building via 311 to the [Chicago] Department of Buildings. I wish it was taken more seriously and I wish there were laws to hold landlords accountable without going through the process of hiring a lawyer.

MPAC: Do you have any advice for others experiencing this problem?

Ellie: Know your rights and don’t back down. At first, I was tempted to just pay the money so I don’t have to worry about eviction. But I decided that no, I’ve done nothing wrong. I shouldn’t have to pay full rent for an uninhabitable apartment—they need to get this fixed.

MPAC: Is there anything else you’d like to share?

Ellie: You don’t really realize the emotional impact of something like this until you experience it. I never thought just having a bug problem could affect my emotions so much. I’m so anxious and stressed out all the time. Will I come home and find an eviction notice? Am I going to have to find a new apartment? There’s just so much emotional anxiety and stress. Landlords see a young 20-something couple like us and think they can get away with it, and in most cases, they can. It has to stop.

MPAC: Thank you so much, Ellie, for sharing your experience. I hope that your story can help us prevent this from happening to more people like you in the future.

Unfortunately, stories like Ellie’s are all too common. Although the passing of the Chicago Bed Bug Ordinance in 2012, in which MPAC played an integral role, has gone a long way toward putting regulations in place to protect tenant rights and prevent the spread of bed bugs, many landlords still do not comply fully with some aspects of the Ordinance, whether willfully or out of ignorance, and tenants often do not know their rights. In Ellie’s case, a timely response by her landlord and proper inspection and treatment of surrounding units as required by the Ordinance would likely have prevented the problem from getting out of hand and sparking a costly and time-consuming landlord-tenant dispute. MPAC will continue to push for better landlord education on bed bug issues. Better enforcement of the Ordinance by regulatory authorities may also be needed, especially in cases of low-income tenants who do not have the financial resources to take landlords to task themselves.

As one of the most difficult pests to eliminate, bed bugs are no joke, and neither are the messy disputes that come with them. As Ellie said, know your rights, and arm yourself with knowledge to protect yourself if bed bugs come to call. Familiarize yourself with Chicago’s Bed Bug Ordinance and bed bug prevention strategies at Organizations that can help empower and guide Chicago tenants through landlord disputes include Metropolitan Tenants Organization, (773) 292-4980 and Lawyer’s Committee for Better Housing, (312) 347-7600.

Related links:

Chicago’s Bed Bug Ordinance: A Fact Sheet for Tenants (available in multiple languages)
Chicago Tenants’ Rights and Responsibilities: Keeping a Pest Free Home
Bed Bug Checklist for Tenants
The Fair Housing Act: Reasonable Accommodations for Renters with Pest Problems