My tenant says my rental condo has a bedbug infestation, which the property manager confirms. There were no bedbugs when the tenant moved in two years ago. Who's responsible? Can I take action against my tenant?
–Bugged in Berkeley
You're certainly not alone. There appears to have been a massive epidemic of bedbug infestations across the United States in 2016, which is still ongoing. It can happen to anybody—it's not just a matter of poor cleaning habits. Bedbugs frequently manage to invade even meticulously well-kept homes by hitching a ride on a child's coat after playing with friends, or pets out for a walk, or used furniture from another home.
Back in 2010, intimate apparel retailer Victoria's Secret reported that one of their locations had been invaded by a bedbug infestation, forcing them to destroy the infested clothing and treat the entire store for the pests. There were similar infestations at retailers Hollister and Abercrombie & Fitch, among others. Perhaps your dwelling became infested after your tenant innocently shopped at a reputable retailer, whose clothing may have been contaminated with nearly invisible bedbug eggs during shipping.
One team member here at APM had been staying in a Las Vegas hotel room for a few days when she noticed itchy red bites on her skin. She only avoided bringing the bedbugs home with her by quarantining her suitcase in the bathroom when she got back.
They could be invading the property from a nearby dumpster as well, or from a neighboring unit. I'm sharing these examples with you to help you to understand that a bedbug infestation isn't necessarily anyone's fault—it's an unfortunate situation that could happen to anyone, and is not necessarily due to neglect or bad behavior.
Sure, some apartments are more cluttered or less pristine than others, but clutter or poor housekeeping don't normally cause a bedbug infestation, though it may delay detection. In any case, your tenant is likely doing you a favor by alerting you to the problem.
Consider on the aforementioned causes, and don't be too quick to blame your tenant. Remember they're just as eager to eradicate the bedbug infestation as you are—perhaps even more so, because it's their living situation that's being disrupted by misery and discomfort. These things happen, and unless you have some pretty specific evidence of negligence, chances are good your tenant did nothing wrong. In fact, some landlords who have a lot of rental units have found that playing the blame game and trying to punish a tenant with a bedbug infestation has a reverse effect: Tenants will delay reporting a bedbug infestation until the problem gets much worse and spreads to neighboring units.
Chances are, you'll need to invest in eradicating the bedbug infestation, and extermination costs are normally the responsibility of the landlord, not the tenant. However, your tenant can contribute to the solution in several important ways. Be sure to keep the lines of communication open throughout the eradication process, because you're going to need their cooperation.
You're going to have to have someone treat the bedbug infestation ASAP. However, remember that you also have an obligation to provide at least 24 hours' written notice of your intent to enter the dwelling under California Civil Law Section 1954.
First, ask your tenant to wash every article of clothing and linen in sight. You'll likely want to provide them with the special dissolvable pesticide bags they can put in the washer to kill bugs, eggs, and larvae on contact. They're inexpensive—about $2 per load of laundry—and well worth the investment.
Once they're done with the laundering, have them put their clothing and bedding in sealed plastic bags and vacuum. Next, ask them to declutter as much as possible, pulling everything out of closets and drawers and off of shelves. They'll have to clear out of the apartment while the apartment is being treated, but depending on the measures used, they may be able to come back later that same day.
For more detailed information on available countermeasures, including which treatments are most effective in a multi-family context, see this bedbug control report from the National Center for Healthy Housing. If you own multiple units in the building, issue a handout to the other tenants letting them know which preventative measures they should take.
Just a few more things you should be aware of: In California, landlords are obligated to keep their rental units in a habitable condition, regardless of your personal financial situation (Knight vs. Hallsthammer (1981) 29 C.3rd 46). California Civil Code Section 1941.1, Landlord Obligations states that it's your responsibility as the landlord to keep the property free of rubbish, filth, garbage, and vermin.
In addition, California Civil Code Section 1942.5 prohibits landlords from taking retaliatory action against a tenant for requesting a repair from their landlord. So if you do try to evict or take any other measure against the tenant for reporting the bedbug infestation, you could potentially give them a cause of action against you.