Uninvited tenants

Last modified: 4/13/2012 12:00:00 AM
Janet Tower is rolling up her sleeves, trying to get things done.

She's got a folder stuffed with medical reports and letters, a sign that this 51-year-old Pittsfield woman is working hard, ready to fight.

Meanwhile, bumps and scabs line her arms, normally covered due to her embarrassment. Tower says the bed bugs in her $800-a-month apartment, which she shares with a senior citizen friend, have moved in and don't plan on leaving.

She wants her landlord to do something about it. She wants the town's Housing Standards Agency to do something about it. She wants an attorney to do something about it.

Is anyone listening, Tower wonders? An exterminator was scheduled to visit her building this morning, after months of fighting with her landlord, Steve Aubertin of Center Barnstead.

But Tower is skeptical that today's spraying will solve the problem, and she's been resistant to bring her

bedding and clothes to the laundromat, as Aubertin has suggested, claiming he should pay the bill.

"I wake two to three times per night with a painful, burning itch, and I try not to scratch, but sometimes in my sleep I do," Tower said. "There are permanent scars on my arms and some on my legs. They won't even talk to me at town hall. It's as if I never lodged a complaint."

Tower complained to Fred Okrent, the Pittsfield Housing Standards Agency administrator, who told Aubertin, who told a pest inspector, the man with the chemicals that, perhaps, will kill the blood-sucking pests.

But since Tower received documentation two months ago that those marks on her body were indeed bed bug bites, the red tape involved has remained wider than the Merrimack River.

While Tower, backed by her two daughters, complains that there is no justice, Okrent and Aubertin say they're doing everything they can.

For one thing, Okrent, a 69-year-old grandfather and retired engineering specialist for IBM, works for the town part time. His boss, Bill Elkins, is a volunteer. And, Okrent says, the Department of Health and Human Services told him it no longer has the budget to address this kind of problem.

"I'm following the procedures that are outlined in our ordinance," Okrent said. "She (Tower) has somewhat unrealistic expectations. If I were the emperor or dictator, I probably could clear this matter up in a couple of weeks. Unfortunately, I am severely limited in what I can do by the law, and I have to follow certain guidelines and procedures."

Meanwhile, Aubertin says his tenant hasn't cooperated with his attempts to help, writing in an email that "This has just been a frustrating situation, which keeps escalating no matter how hard I try to address it."

Tower, though, holds firm to her stance, shaking her head and pointing to the bites that line her arms like cities on a road map.

She's a mother of two and a grandmother of two who's been on disability since a car crash 25 years ago. She's lived in Pittsfield for four years and noticed bites last summer. Tests showed she'd been bitten by bed bugs and that she was allergic to the bites.

Since then, Tower and her roommate have thrown out their mattresses and couch. They itch and they scratch and they hope one day the problem will go away.

Tower, in fact, has caught a few bed bugs, packaging them in plastic bags as she tries to document everything she can in case she chooses to file a lawsuit in the future.

Her two daughters, Jonna and Alecia Tower of Concord, and Jonna's two small children stay away from Tower's apartment.

"My kids can not go over there," Jonna said. "My mother is embarrassed because she can't have people over."

Alecia, who has a few bites from a recent visit, added, "I'd rather see her in a homeless shelter than living there."

Okrent doesn't dispute that Tower filed a complaint with his office, or that there's a bed bug problem in her home, or that he wishes he could snap his fingers and evict the critters.

But he's a part-time employee, and all tenants in the 11-unit building must be notified before an inspection can be scheduled. That takes time.

(To date, Okrent says none of the other people living in the building have complained, a fact Tower comfirmed).

Complicating matters, Okrent says, is that bed bugs are tough to kill, meaning this morning's scheduled procedure might not even work.

"There is only one effective methodology for bed bug control," Okrent said, "and that's extreme heat, and it's a very expensive process which landlords don't want to get into."

Town ordinances protect tenants, stating bugs must be "exterminated by approved processes."

What kind of teeth the ordinance has, though, is up for debate. Okrent will inspect the apartment April 24.

"If I go back and it's still infested," he said, "then I can issue a notice of violation and order the problem to be corrected, and this whole thing takes time."

If the bugs are still there, will the costly extreme heat method then be ordered?

"It could be," Okrent said, "but it's going to take a long time. There are all kinds of layers of laws."

Which is what Tower worries about. She doesn't want to hear anything about procedural delays, or methodology, or a landlord who claims she's been uncooperative.

She wants the bed bugs out of her apartment, and she's rolling up her sleeves to get the job done.

"I was not born to be a quitter," Tower said.

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com.)

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