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Perpetual infestation: Wilmington senior housing can’t eliminate bedbugs

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Shannon Miles once was reduced to tears after visiting her grandfather at Luther Towers in Wilmington, where bedbugs crawled on his skin.

“When you see them in the carpet and on the walls — that’s an infestation,” said Miles, 40.

While she waited in line to tell the manager, she said, she heard three other residents complain about bedbugs. Miles said she was shocked to hear employees say they take personal precautions, while the unit in Luther Towers I that belonged to her grandfather Dave Heit was continually infested.

Richard Atkinson, 68, said he wakes up every night in his Luther Towers I apartment, his sheets bloody from bedbug bites. In the past five months, Atkinson said, his unit has been fumigated three times.

During the past four months, exterminators have sprayed for bedbugs in Luther Towers I 180 times, city records show.

Atkinson is among the hundreds of low-income residents who can’t escape bedbugs in Wilmington public housing: Luther Towers I and II, Terry Apartments and Ingleside Retirement Apartments have all struggled to contain infestations.

These apartment complexes cater to seniors, with units in Luther Towers starting at $495 a month. 

All have been sprayed hundreds of times in recent months. Luther Towers I and Luther Towers II, combined, have been fumigated 361 times in the past four months, according to city records.

Building administrators and city inspectors insist these high-rise apartment complexes are fully complying with the law to resolve the continued infestation.

One of the biggest problems, they insist, is that not all the residents properly prep their units for extermination; many refuse to throw out furniture such as mattresses and upholstered pieces where the bugs can live, breed and hide from the spray.

The reason is that most are on fixed income and don’t have the money to replace pieces potentially infested.

“I can’t afford new furniture,” said Atkinson, sitting in a blue upholstered recliner. “This chair is brand new. If they want me to get rid of it, they need to pay for a new one.”

And even after buying new furniture, there is no guarantee the pests won’t return, Atkinson said.

Atkinson was a friend of Shannon Mile’s grandfather before he died in his sleep in April. Atkinson said his friend’s apartment was still infested with bedbugs when he died. 

City records obtained by The News Journal show that Luther Towers’ 361 treatments since Sept. 1 include full, follow-up and preventative services. Some of the units didn’t have bugs, but were sprayed in an effort to prevent the pests from entering, the documents said. Luther Towers I has 226 units, and Luther Towers II has 136. 

Source: Wilmington Department of Licenses and Inspections

Terry Apartments, a complex with 160 units, was treated for bedbugs 175 times in October, November and December. Some units received multiple treatments during that 90-day period, and some were treated as a precaution.

Tenants in the public housing buildings have filed complaints about bedbugs since 2015, records show.

Ingleside Retirement Apartments residents complained to the city six times in 2017. The News Journal received Ingleside treatment records only from Nov. 20-Dec.13. Those documents showed  a total of 37 treatments, and explained that only vacated units were treated. Ingleside management did not return calls for comment. 

Delaware does not have a state law regarding bedbugs. So it’s up to counties and cities to pass ordinances related to enforcement violations. In Wilmington, for example, the ordinance says residents have a right to a clean and safe apartment. Ennforcement of that ordinance falls to the city’s 12 building code inspectors, among their many other obligations.

“In the case of Terry Apartments, they are doing what I require them to do,” city inspector Yvonne Davis said. “I have compliance.”

Jamie Mack of the state Department of Health and Social Services said the state doesn’t have the authority to issue violations or reprimand landlords for bedbug complaints. But the department does get 10 calls a week about bedbugs.

“I can say that we have worked with residents in Luther Towers and in Ingleside, but there were no inspection reports or violations issued,” he said.

Some cases are landing in court. Don Gouge, a Wilmington lawyer who has worked on both sides of bedbug cases, said he has seen “a big uptick” in the number of bedbug-related lawsuits. The cases are usually landlords and tenants determining which party foots the bill for treatments that can cost up to a $1,000 each.

“It is difficult to prove where and when the bedbugs became an issue,” Gouge said. “They don’t travel from unit to unit. They latch onto people and things.”

Bedbugs are about the size of an apple seed, balloon-like shaped and brown, according to the Center for Disease Control. The agency said the pests spend most of their lives hidden in cracks and crevices like wallpaper and inside bedding, box springs and furniture. Bedbugs feed on human flesh while people sleep deeply.  The pests can travel up to 100 feet in a night, and survive for up to 300 days. Researchers have found bedbugs in fossils dated 11,000 years ago. The CDC say bedbugs are not known to transmit or spread disease. Bites can look like rashes, hives or an insect bites. 

Terry Apartments, Ingleside Retirement Apartments and both of the Luther Towers are paying for the treatments. Terry Apartments has a one-year contract with an exterminator for weekly treatments.

Laura Zaner, a spokeswoman for Terry Apartments, said the complex this January implemented a new strategy to try to break the cycle. Exterminators will spray each unit four times a year, using new chemicals and heat treatments.

“It requires continual vigilance,” Zaner said. “They are just looking for every possible manner to address this situation.” 

Management asks residents to refrain from having visitors until the unit has been fully treated.

Difficulty treating

Some think there should be more and stronger country rules and laws. 

Jeff Starkey, commissioner of the Wilmington Department of Inspections and Licences,  said bedbug infestations need to be considered a public health issue.

“We don’t interact with public health officials, but I think it needs to be brought to that level if it’s increasing,” Starkey said. “It needs to become a public health issue.”

One Ingleside former resident, Tish Welsh, said in a brief phone interview that bedbug problems were a major factor in her decision to move out of that center. She did not respond to requests for more details.

Said Atkinson: “I kill four or five of them every day. It is so frustrating.” 

Luther Towers said that if a resident reports a case, it is addressed within 24 hours. City records show the building is spayed only on Fridays.

“Those who are complaining about an infestation are the ones not complying properly,” said John Teoli, the executive director of the complex.

Bedbugs require multiple treatments to exterminate, and apartment complexes are breeding grounds for the hitchhiking pests because of the close proximity between tenants.

Starkey said there are so many moving parts to the issue that it’s nearly impossible to solve, especially in high-rise complexes like Terry Apartments and Luther Towers.

The complexes, which all include Section 8 public housing for seniors, ask residents to bag up their belongings, get rid of food, move furniture and sometimes throw out mattresses and upholstered pieces. Zaner, of Terry Apartments, said workers help move furniture because they realize senior citizens might not be able to do it alone. 

Davis, the city inspector who works with Terry Apartments, and Van Blue, the city inspector working with Luther Towers, said failure to correctly prep units for treatments is a major setback in extermination, as is the perceived stigma of admitting you have bedbugs.

They also believe that people need more education about bedbugs, including how they spread and why it’s important to follow prepping instructions.

“They don’t get the education that they should,” Blue said. “It’s incumbent on them to do their part.”

Starkey worries that older residents may not understand what they’re being told, and may need to be handled in special ways if there are hearing, reading or memory problems. Those comments are confirmed by one Terry Apartments resident, who didn’t know bedbugs could travel from apartment to apartment.

Lucile McManus, the Resident Council president at Luther Towers, said she feels like the complex can’t do anything more than it is about the bugs.

“It’s like a plague now. They are everywhere,” McManus said. “They are dealing with it continually, but the stigma of having bedbugs is keeping people from reporting them.”

Blue said he doesn’t see a solution, even though the complexes are trying to solve the problem. 

It’s going to be an ongoing battle for tenants and building managers because tenants may travel to other places, such as other contaminated apartments, buses or other public buildings, and bring the pests back to their homes without realizing it.

Luther Towers resident Atkinson agrees that he doesn’t see the situation changing soon.

“If I stay here,” he said, “I might have to live out the rest of my life in trash bags.”

Contact Josephine Peterson at (302) 324-2856 or jhpeterson@delawareonline.com. Follow her on Twitter at @jopeterson93.

Article source: https://www.delawareonline.com/story/news/local/2018/02/01/perpetual-infestation-wilmington-senior-housing-cant-eliminate-bedbugs/1072674001/

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