New bedbug protections for renters

Rent it Right

By Inman News Feed
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Nov. 19, 2010

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Rent it Right

Janet Portman
Inman News

Q: I'm moving to New York City and I'm really worried about moving into an apartment that has bedbugs -- there have been so many articles about New York City being the "bedbug capital" of the country. Is there any way that I can protect myself? --Walter N.

A: You're moving at just the right time: As of August 2010, apartment landlords in New York City must disclose to potential renters whether the unit they're considering renting, and the building as a whole, has had a bedbug infestation within the previous year (Admin. Code of New York City, Section 27-2018.1).

Landlords who fail to make the disclosure can be ordered to do so, upon a tenant's written complaint to the city's division of housing and community renewal.

The law is laudable in that it requires landlords to make the disclosure even when applicants don't ask first (although there don't seem to be negative consequences for landlords who fail to do so). It would be nice if the law also required landlords to furnish information as to how the infestation was treated and, more importantly, whether the pest control company issued an "all clear."

A one-year "look back" period is probably sufficient (if the treatment wasn't effective, chances are the critters will reappear within a year).

Some critics have pointed out that knowing whether a proposed home has had a bedbug problem is only part of the information needed to keep buildings bedbug-free.

To keep infestations out of their buildings, landlords need to know whether applicants have themselves suffered a bedbug infestation, or are coming from a building in which there was a problem in other units or common areas.

These tenants may be fleeing an apartment or building that has been poorly treated (or not at all), thinking that if they leave quickly, they can escape the scourge. But they may simply end up bringing the bugs with them to their new home.

Landlords don't need state legislation allowing them to ask, in their rental applications, whether applicants have a bedbug history with their own rented space or the building it's in.

Bedbug sufferers are not a protected class, which means that questions designed to identify them (and landlords' rejection of them for that reason) are not illegal. Careful landlords are beginning to ask such questions, and to state in their leases or rental agreements that untruthful answers will constitute grounds for termination of the tenancy.

New York City's new law (which does not apply to condos or cooperatives) is one of a very few that address the issue of bedbugs. In March 2010, the governor of Maine signed a bill that forbids landlords from renting a unit that they know or suspect contains bedbugs.

The law requires landlords, before renting a dwelling unit, to disclose to a prospective tenant whether an adjacent unit or units are currently infested with or being treated for bedbugs.

Upon request from a tenant or prospective tenant, a landlord must disclose the last date that the dwelling unit the landlord seeks to rent or an adjacent unit or units were inspected for a bedbug infestation and found to be free of an infestation.

Landlords who fail to comply with the law are liable for a penalty of $250 or actual damages, whichever is greater, plus reasonable attorney's fees (14 Me. Rev. Stat. Ann. Section 6021-A).

Q: I own and manage a medium-sized apartment building. A few of my tenants have asked me to implement a "no smoking" policy for the entire building, including individual units. Can I do this without getting into legal trouble? --Wes J.

A: Your tenants' request is one of a chorus of demands by residents nationwide that they not be subjected to the effects of second-hand smoke. There's little debate about the unhealthful consequences of breathing someone else's smoke -- which include lung cancer and cardiac disease.

A June 17, 2010, article in the New England Journal of Medicine notes that disabled or older persons with compromised heart or lung capacity, as well as children, are especially susceptible. Interestingly, the article even identifies "third-hand smoke" -- the tobacco toxins that have been deposited on walls, furniture and floors, and which continue to "re-emit" over a period of days to years -- as a potential health risk.

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