Bedbugs, the tiny scourges of hotels and apartment complexes, are appearing in Orange County with increasing frequency, and a summer uptick is expected, experts say.
“We are heading into the bedbug season,” said Patti Ball, pest control office manager for Preferred General Contracting and Exterminating in Fountain Valley.
The problem is especially acute in Anaheim because of its status as a vacation destination. Visitors to the resort district surrounding Disneyland unwittingly bring the lady bug-sized creatures with them in their luggage, infesting area hotels, motels and homes. Similarly, bedbugs can travel from back pack to back pack at school, allowing students to transport them home.
Another driver of the ongoing infestations is the county's sky-high housings costs, which force people into crowded living conditions. Experts say the many so-called "motel families" — those on the brink of homelessness living week-to-week in residential hotels — are particularly vulnerable, as are people who live in congested apartments in low-income neighborhoods.
“The public is under the impression that the number one place for bedbugs is hotels, due to media reports,” said Gail Getty, consultant and former entomologist at UC Berkeley. “But the real battle is being waged in multi-unit housing. I see it a lot in low-income communities, apartments with 15 to 16 mattresses on the floor.”
Getty said her “favorite statistic” is the following: “If there’s a mated female bedbug in a room, under optimal conditions, that number can turn into 30,000 bedbugs in six months.”
Reports of infestations have dramatically increased in recent years.
Ball said that five years ago her company would receive around 10 calls a year relating to bedbug infestations. The problem has since grown exponentially. Nowadays during bedbug season — summer and the winter holidays when people commonly move, travel and take vacation — they receive between three and four calls a day.
“Yesterday I got three calls: Yorba Linda, Anaheim and Huntington Beach — all homes, all for bedbugs,” Ball said.
In Anaheim, 52 hotels or motels were reported to have had bedbug infestations, according to BedBugRegistry.com, an online public database of bedbug sightings in the U.S. and Canada. By comparison, the number of reported hotel and motel infestations in other Orange County cities was between zero and five.
Los Angeles hotels and motels received 85 complaints on the registry.
Within Anaheim, the infestations do not seem to discriminate on a socioeconomic basis. Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel received several bedbug complaints, as did the Super 8 Motel near Disneyland. Representatives of the two hotels did not respond to calls asking for a comment on the complaints.
Bedbugs are not the byproduct of poor sanitation, since they do not feed off food or trash, according to the National Pesticide Information Center: “Since bedbugs feed on blood, their presence has little to do with the cleanliness of the home.”
Infestations in residential motels have grown so common that the Illumination Foundation — an organization that provides the homeless with emergency housing and assists motel families — put procedures in place three years ago to help clients deal with potential infestations.
“We provide all of our families [placed in motels] with a bedbug detector, bedbug spray and bedbug covers,” said Katie Rootlieb, Communications Director at the Illumination Foundation.
One former Anaheim motel resident, who has since moved into a home, said that bedbugs were a regular occurrence that made life even more unbearable in the cramped room that she shared with her three children.
“I didn’t know how to deal with it,” she said. “They’ll move you to a different room, but it doesn’t guarantee anything.”
According to Ball, “bedbugs travel through walls.” It can cost a few hundred dollars to more than $1,000 to treat residences for bedbugs, an amount that low-income residents struggle to pay, she said.
Sometimes residents of apartments try to ignore the creatures until they can’t tolerate them any longer. Or they immediately throw out their mattresses, incurring additional costs. Meanwhile, the bedbugs can remain in the box spring or other locations of the bedroom, she said.
Treating a crowded apartment or residential motel is difficult, because it requires complete cooperation from every individual living in the building, said Getty, the former UC entomologist.
For residents of rental apartments and motels that are infested, there are few recourses.
Laissez Faire Regulation
Since bedbugs don’t spread disease, the Orange County Health Care Agency doesn’t play a role in eradicating bedbugs or tracking infestations, according to spokeswoman Tricia Landquist. “The health care agency’s role with respect to bedbugs is largely advisory,” she said.
Similarly, the Orange County Vector Control District “provides surveillance and control measures for rats, mosquitoes, flies and Red Imported Fire Ants,” according to its website. Vector Control does not regulate, respond to, or record bedbug incidents.
“Our agency is a special district and not part of the county of Orange system. Therefore we don’t enforce county codes,” said Laura Kreuger, a vector ecologist at the district.
Instead, it's incumbent upon local businesses to handle any infestations without a regulatory framework that ensures infestations are dealt with.
“They are required to abate them as soon as they become aware of them,” said Kreuger.
If landlords are reluctant to take action, renters can seek a lawyer’s help. Experts in housing say renters have a better chance if a number of them in the same building can show evidence of infestation.
David Levy, housing rights advocate at the Fair Housing Council of Orange County, said that few attorneys have the specialized knowledge to handle a bedbug case and that many attorneys require an upfront retainer, effectively shutting out many low-income tenants.
One public interest lawyer in Los Angeles said she has succeeded repeatedly in pressing landlords for bedbug treatment on behalf of tenants.
Attorney Sabrina Venskus has seen an “unbelievable” increase in bedbug reports. Her firm, Venskus & Associates, receives several calls a day regarding bedbugs in landlord-tenant disputes, up from one or two a week in past years.
Bedbugs are such a clear violation of landlord and tenant agreements that she has never gone to trial. Landlords settle virtually every time, she said.
“Juries would freak out about bedbugs, because they’re so gross,” she said. “It’s a very compelling testimony.”
The treatment for bedbegs can vary, from spraying to the more effective — and expensive — processes like heat treatment or fumigation.
Unfortunately, according to Venskus, most landlords opt for the cheaper spraying, which only temporarily solves the problem. “It’s entirely irresponsible,” she said.
Adam O’Neal is a journalism student at the UC Irvine. You can reach him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.