UW-Madison student Ellie Kahn and her roommates knew they had a problem when they found bedbugs in their downtown apartment. They moved out claiming the apartment was untenantable. They now face a bigger problem. Tenants are not protected under state statute or city ordinance for pest-control problems unless they can prove the infestation is a severe health hazard.
According to Brenda Konkel, director of the Tenant Resource Center, landlords are not required to inform tenants of a previous pest problem or compensate tenants for rent during an infestation or treatment. However, Konkel said she believes they should be required under city ordinance to do so.
Bedbugs are wingless insects that feed on humans and have seen a resurgence over the last 10 years because they have become resistant to commonly used pesticides, according to Phillip Pellitteri, extension entomologist at UW-Madison.
""A big issue on campus is used furniture and multi-unit apartments [because] they spread easily from one unit to the next,"" Pellitteri said.
Downtown Madison housing units are particularly susceptible to bedbug infestations because of high tenant turnover and tenants bringing in used furniture, according to Pellitteri. Landlords of multi-unit buildings are responsible for maintaining a pest-free environment, but residents' rights are not explicitly covered in current state law.
""I can easily foresee this [becoming] a greater and more frequent problem in the next couple of years,"" Ald. Bridget Maniaci, District 2, said of the increasing problem of bedbugs.
The three students lived in a Madison Property Management apartment on the 500 block of West Washington Avenue.
The tenants started to notice bedbug bites and reported an infestation at the end of February. In an e-mail, MPM told the tenants it would treat the apartment and that the apartment was previously treated for bedbugs in June 2009.
According to Dan Keohane of Alternative Pest Solutions, the pest-control company MPM contracted to treat the girls' apartment, 95 to 99 percent of bedbugs are killed during the first pesticide treatment, so most tenants choose to move back into their apartments afterward.
However, one of the three tenants, Lisi Becker, said she saw bedbugs crawling out of the walls while her roommates were cleaning after the first treatment.
""We decided we were not willing to live there anymore and started looking for another place,"" Kahn said.
The three women moved out about three weeks after reporting the infestation.
The tenants are currently asking MPM to be compensated for rent and personal possessions and be allowed to break their lease because one of the tenants had a serious reaction to the bites. According to Patricia Yoedicke, the tenants' lawyer, MPM has paid for three of the six nights the tenants spent in a hotel during the treatment and $300 for their inconvenience and have refunded their security deposit.
According to state statutes, if the unit is untenantable because of flood, fire or health hazard or requires repairs that impose ""undue hardship"" on the tenant, they may leave the residence.
Tenants are only eligible for rent compensation if a building inspector orders a landlord to eradicate a pest problem and they fail to do so in the allotted time, according to George Hank, director of the Madison Building Inspection Division.
Maniaci said she thinks pest-control situations are something that needs to be looked at ""comprehensively"" at the city level. One controversial issue, Maniaci said, would be whether landlords should tell their tenants about past pest issues.
""I don't see why the city of Madison couldn't pass a law that says, ‘Yes, we have to have disclosure about [pest-control problems] when you move into an apartment,'"" Konkel said.
Maniaci said such an ordinance could be unfair to landlords who were not responsible for a particular pest problem of if they treated the problem correctly.
According to Dan Seeley, community manager for Steve Brown Apartments, most of their pest-control situations are dealt with based on feedback from their pest-control contractor, Wil-Kil, which also does preventative building treatments monthly with Steve Brown.
""Part of the challenge with [bedbugs] is that we as human beings can only see so much,"" Wil-Kil regional manager Jim Gilbert said. Wil-Kil uses a trained dog to smell out bedbugs and their eggs before an apartment is heavily infested.
If students have problems with or questions about pest control, they can contact the Tenant Resource Center at 608-257-0006.