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Ask a Tenant Attorney: How to Deal with Pest Infestations

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Ask a Tenants Right’s Lawyer is your chance to learn how to survive as a renter in San Francisco.  Attorney Daniel Wayne has a lot of the information you need to keep you in your home.  This month’s topic: Dealing with bedbugs, vermin, and other pest infestations. Got a question? Send an email to alex@brokeassstuart.com and we will forward it on.

Photo from Smith’s Pest Management

During the pandemic, you’re no doubt spending more time in your home. There are both pros and cons about this reality: It is, what it is. However, things can drastically change if you suddenly get uninvited guests taking up space in your place – namely mice, rats, bedbugs, or other pests. What do you do when you have to deal with a pest infestation?

Notify Your Landlord

If you find yourself dealing with unidentified bug bites or find poop on your counter resist the urge to just address the situation on your own. While you may be tempted to buy bug bombs, mice traps, etc, you actually have an obligation to notify your landlord of the problem.

With issues like bedbugs for example, there is a very specific way in which treatment must be done that involves treating surrounding units. If you try and treat your unit on your own and do not tell your landlord you may actually make the problem worse. Bedbugs will just move to other units so treating your own unit alone won’t resolve the problem.

That’s why you must tell your landlord immediately so that they know there is an issue; they can’t do anything about it, if they don’t know. Notify your landlord right away (in writing) about the problem because it will go a long way to help establish their notice, in case they try to deny knowing about the problem later on or if the infestation lingers.

Document the Problem

At the first sign of any type of pest infestation, you might be scared or angry at having to deal with the situation. These things are gross. That said, creating evidence of the infestation is crucial. Be sure to get pictures of the pests (if you can) or other indicators of their presence, such as droppings. If you’re dealing with bedbugs – take photos of your bites and considering saving some dead ones and putting them in a ziplock bag (again, super gross but you’d be shocked at how many tenants have shown up at our offices with a bag of dead bugs). Also for rodent infestations for example, consider keeping a written log detailing how often you see mice, how many, and how many you may have caught.

Why does documentation matter? In addition to proving the problem exists if the landlord ignores you or refuses to acknowledge it as real, documentation is critical to a potential lawsuit if the problem escalates and for showing city inspectors if necessary.

Talk to the Pest Control Operator

Assuming your landlord brings in a pest control company, get their contact information and business card. While most landlords will take the problem seriously and hire a qualified pest control operator, this is not always the case. You will want to know if they are licensed, ask them what their treatment plan will be. If you’re dealing with bedbugs – make sure to confirm what kind of treatment they’re utilizing, how many treatments they will be doing, and whether they will be inspecting and treating surrounding units. Again, the hope is they know what they are doing and will fix the problem, but this is not a given. Research the company and consider looking up the best practices for treatment given the type of pest.

Contact the Department of Public Health / Vector Control

If your landlord won’t properly address the pest infestation or the problem persists we recommend filing a complaint with your city/county’s vector control department. For San Francisco, that’s a subdivision of the Department of Public Health. You can file a complaint here. The city will then send out an inspector to investigate and will issue a Notice of Violation if they see evidence of a pest infestation.

Your Landlord Has to Pay for the Treatment

Typically, your landlord is responsible for paying for pest control. Under the implied warranty of habitability, landlords must provide an inhabitable living environment for their tenants, meaning that the premises must be in livable conditions; this includes providing an environment that maintains health and safety requirements. Since an infestation would threaten the condition, this definitely counts.

If a landlord can prove you created the infestation they can hold you responsible for the costs. You may be held responsible if for example, you’re a hoarder, or if your failure to report a leak, remove garbage, or clean thoroughly caused the infestation. Of course, you should never willingly concede or admit this.  Be aware that some landlords may try to blame you for the invasion by claiming that you brought the pest to the premises or that you didn’t tell them about the issue.

The only good bedbug is a dead bedbug (photo from Max Pixel)

A Special Note about Bed Bugs

Bed bugs are very different than other pests. In fact, California has specific laws regarding bedbugs, including the following:

• Landlords can’t show, lease, or rent property with active infestations.
• Landlords must disclose the bed bug history of the last 2 years to prospective tenants.
• Landlords can’t retaliate against you by raising your rent or evicting you if you call a government agency for an inspection or request that they conduct a treatment (actually this applies generally, pursuant to state wide retaliation laws).

Local San Francisco laws also provide safeguards. For prospective tenants’ bed bug inquiries, the landlord must provide a written history of the rental’s infestation/treatment history for the last 2 years. For current tenants, the landlord must hire a licensed exterminator to inspect the unit (as well as nearby units) within 2 days of the complaint.

Call a Lawyer

If you are dealing with a pest infestation that drags on, isn’t being dealt with properly or forces you to move out of your home it is time to talk to a local tenant’s rights attorney about your options. Tenants who are forced to vacate their home as a result of defective conditions, including pest infestations may have grounds to bring a lawsuit for constructive eviction and may be entitled to substantial monetary damages. As a rule of thumb it is best to contact a lawyer for these kinds of issues BEFORE you move out. If you need assistance along the way there are also many resources available such as the San Francisco Tenants Union and the Housing Rights Committee.

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Daniel Wayne - Tenant's Rights Attorney

Daniel Wayne - Tenant's Rights Attorney

Daniel Wayne is a San Francisco based tenants rights attorney and a founding partner of Wolford Wayne LLP. Wolford Wayne is a tenant's rights firm dedicated to fighting for the rights of residential tenants throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. He is an active member of the California State Bar, the San Francisco Bar Association, and the Tenants Together Network. Daniel volunteers at the San Francisco Tenant's Union, and has appeared on 91.7 FM KALW's "Know Your Legal Rights" Program. He received the Outstanding Volunteer in Public Service award from the San Francisco Bar Association in 2012, 2013 and 2014, and has been named a Super Lawyer Rising Star each of the past six years, an honor bestowed on the top 2.5% of Attorneys. He is originally from Seattle, Washington and makes his home here in San Francisco. For more tips for tenants and the latest on tenant's rights follow Wolford Wayne on twitter at @sftenantlaw or visit their website: www.wolford-wayne.com for more information.