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New N.H. law targets the itchy problem of bed bug infestations

Last modified: 8/27/2013 8:10:15 AM
A new state law is targeting an itchy problem in New Hampshire: bed bugs.

The blood-sucking insects can be a persistent nuisance, often hiding in bedding and leaving telltale red bite marks on their victims. A number of infestations have been reported in New Hampshire in recent years, including a severe infestation at a Manchester apartment building in 2009 that led to the formation of the Bed Bug Action Committee.

This year, the Legislature took action. A bill addressing bed bugs in rental housing sailed through the Democratic-controlled House and Republican-controlled Senate, and Gov. Maggie Hassan signed it into law June 4.

The new law, which takes effect Jan. 1, proclaims that bed bug infestations “cause measurable economic loss to property owners and occupants, as well as significant physical and emotional suffering to occupants.” The public interest, it declares, “requires that reasonable measures be taken to promote prompt and effective remediation.”

Elliott Berry, managing attorney at the Manchester office of New Hampshire Legal Assistance, helped craft the new law. He spoke to the Monitor last week about what it will mean for tenants and property owners across the state.

There’s been more attention paid in recent years to bed bug infestations in the United States. Are there data indicating whether these incidents are actually on the rise?

I have not seen any formal data, but I think there were so many stakeholders participating in ongoing meetings about them because everybody is seeing more and more. I don’t know if “epidemic” is the right word, but it’s awfully close.

We at New Hampshire Legal Assistance came to it because, at our weekly meetings about which cases we’re able to take in the housing field, we just kept getting more and more requests for representation from people who were suffering from bed bug infestations.

Before this year, what was state law regarding bed bugs?

It’s fair to say that there was no specific law about it at all. And that’s one of the problems, is that people were trying really hard to squeeze bed bug problems into the pre-established areas for habitability of rental dwellings or, sometimes, within the general parameters of local codes regarding infestations of insects and rodents.

But what we found is a total lack of uniformity, both in law and in execution, and people just generally terribly confused as to whose responsibility it was to do what.

This law, which passed the Legislature and was signed by Gov. Hassan, takes effect Jan. 1. What does it mean specifically for landlords ­– what changes for them?

Landlords were a big part of the working group that produced this legislation. And so . . . I just want to stress that the goal of everybody there was to create a balanced piece of legislation that would, in the end, make a marked improvement in the overall problem of bed bug infestation. Everybody gave up significant interests in order to make this happen. . . .

For (landlords), what is maybe, in terms of their obligations, the most important thing is that it created a seven-day window where they have an obligation to investigate a report of an infestation of insects, including bed bugs, and then to take reasonable measures to remediate the infestation.

If they fail to do that, tenants can go to their local circuit court, district division, and file an action to force them to take those measures. That’s hugely important.

And I think the other clarification that’s very, very helpful in the bill is, it makes it clear that the landlord, in the first instance, has the obligation to do the remediation, or to have the remediation done, and then he or she can bill the tenant if he determines that the tenant is responsible for the infestation.

How does someone determine that?

At the end of the day, if the parties don’t agree, it’s going to be up to a court to figure that out. But there are, in the bill, some guidance about the factors that a court should look at, including in which units the bed bugs were first discovered, the existence and extent of bed bugs in other units or in common areas in the building, whether and to what extent the landlord undertook remediation efforts prior to the infestation that’s the subject of the litigation, whether the tenant had bed bugs in the dwelling unit from which he or she came.

They’re all common-sense factors.

I do think that, at the end, the important thing is not only does the landlord need to establish that the bed bugs are the responsibility of the tenant, but he also has to show that he offered the tenant a reasonable opportunity for a payment schedule, to repay over time.

Again, we’re trying to balance the interests in getting the remediation done but also getting the responsible parties to pay for it.

What about on the tenants’ side – do they also have new responsibilities under this law?

Yeah. . . . No. 1, they have to permit landlords to come into the apartment to evaluate, create a plan and do remediation. They have to do that, and if they don’t, the landlord can go to court to get an order to force them to do it.

They have to comply with reasonable written instructions from the landlord, or a pest control operator, to prepare the dwelling for remediation.

Again, they have to pay for the remediation, at least through a payment agreement over time, if it is their responsibility.

And failure to do any of those things can result in their eviction.

One of the other big areas is that, even tenants who live in units next to and above and below have to permit landlords access to evaluate and to do remediation, knowing that bed bugs migrate.

Again, there’s a lot of give and take on both sides. Everybody’s going to wince a little bit when it affects them. But if the goal is to make a significant dent in the degree of bed bug infestation, then we believe this is good legislation to do it.

Do you think this will make a difference in terms of fighting bed bugs?

I do. I certainly do. Don’t get me wrong, bed bugs have proven to be unbelievably resilient, and I don’t think it’s going to solve the problem. But it’s certainly going to give more tools to both property owners and tenants to get serious remediation done as quickly as possible, and that’s a major step forward.

(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or bleubsdorf@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)


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