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Low-income renters in Anchorage bitten by another problem: Bedbugs

After years of homelessness with her husband and children, Sandra Haviland was ecstatic to land an apartment this May.

The two-bedroom unit at the Royal Suite Apartments, a former motel that fronts Minnesota Drive, was modest.

The couple's elementary school-age sons would share a bed. So would their two teenage daughters. Haviland and her husband would sleep on the couch and a fold-out cot, respectively.

But after camping on the floor of a church and being crammed in motel rooms, an apartment promised stability and peace.

"When you are homeless and you finally get an apartment, you're just so happy," Haviland said.

But six months later, Haviland and others who reside at the Royal Suite Apartments are finding out just what being a low-income renter with few other options can mean in Anchorage.

Haviland and some of her neighbors say their apartments are so infested with bedbugs that they put children to bed at night with a dose of Benadryl to dull itching and allow sleep.

One of Haviland's neighbors, Crystal Girlando, has taken to at times sleeping in her pickup to escape the bugs.

Girlando's daughter-in-law Brandy Straight, who lives in another unit, catches bedbugs in a cup of water for proof. Like many other residents, she has removed her mattress, box spring and couch from the apartment to a stairwell in an effort to expel bedbugs.

The manager of the Royal Suite Apartments says he is doing everything possible to rid the apartments of bugs, having purchased a $10,000 electric heater that is supposed to safely eradicate bedbugs from an apartment over a six-hour period.

"I am very confident we are taking care of those problems," said manager Thomas Yoon.

The Royal Suite Apartments, 3811 Minnesota Drive, used to be known as the Royal Suite Inn. When the new owner, Jinbo LLC, bought the property in 2013 and turned it into longer-term apartment rentals, they also inherited a bedbug problem, Yoon said. Yoon said he and his on-site maintenance workers have aggressively worked to correct the issue ever since.

"I believe that most of the units, we've already taken care of it. I think if you compare to any other apartment, we are very clean," he said.

A pest that doesn't discriminate

Bedbugs are wingless and about the size of a Rice Krispie. They live on human blood. A healthy population can double in numbers every 16 days. While they can leave itchy bites that can become infected, they aren't known to transmit disease, according to the state's Division of Public Health. They prefer mattresses, box springs, clutter and soft, upholstered furniture, but they don't discriminate; bedbugs have been reported at the scummiest of flea-bag motels as well as the tony Ritz-Carlton hotel in New York, where a room costs $695 a night.

But in motels or apartments that have new occupants frequently, they can spread especially quickly, hitching a ride on pillows, blankets or furniture. In recent years, complaints about bedbugs -- especially in Anchorage's stock of high-turnover rental housing -- are on the rise.

Tony Barrett, the head of the city's environmental health program, said 75 to 80 percent of all complaints his unit receives about pests in housing -- including mice and cockroaches -- involve bedbugs.

Virtually no one was complaining to the municipality about bedbugs in Anchorage as recently as 2008. But since then, the number of complaints has skyrocketed, reaching a high in 2012, according to a state epidemiology bulletin released in March that uses data from the municipality.

The complaints tend to come from low-rent, high-turnover motels and housing, but not exclusively, Barrett said.

Dozens of tenants per year bring their bedbug struggles to Dan Coons, an attorney who practices landlord-tenant law with the Alaska Legal Services Corp., a nonprofit law firm that provides free legal assistance to low-income people.

"It was a problem maybe three or four years ago," Coons said. "Then it died down for a bit. But this past year there's been a lot."

Bedbugs "produce an incredible amount of anxiety in people," he said. "They may be living on the edge financially and then suddenly they are worried about their children having bugs crawling on them at night."

The psychological strain of living with a nearly invisible pest is taking a toll on the family, Haviland said.

After the bugs appeared in her apartment she threw away a stroller for her granddaughter because it was crawling with apple seed-sized dots. She took her son to the doctor because his arm broke out in a rash caused by bites. A favorite armchair now sits by the apartment complex dumpster, after Haviland was sitting in it reading the newspaper and felt bedbugs crawling up the leg of her pants. The bedbugs, Haviland says, are so bold they sometimes don't even scatter when she turns on a light.

She has agonized about whether to send her children to school and risk spreading bedbugs.

Last week, she even kept her daughters, who are in high school, home from school for a week, against district policy.

The Anchorage School District says students who live in homes with bedbug problems should still come to school. The district owns several superheated "hot boxes" that can sterilize items like backpacks and coats if need be. And nurses are trained to be discreet -- sparing a child from embarrassment in front of their peers is paramount, said the ASD's head of health services, Nancy Edtl.

Little recourse for renters

Haviland said she has tried to talk to her landlords before about the problem, though they deny that. She worries about her children being teased. But she says the stress of living with bedbugs and the welts that have risen on her son and husband's neck have left her feeling like she has no other option but to go public.

"It's embarrassing to for me to be standing around talking about it," she said.

Haviland's husband didn't want to be photographed or interviewed for this story because he's looking for a job and fears being associated with bedbugs.

Coons said that fear may not be unfounded:

"We've heard situations where people lost their jobs because of (a bedbug) infestation."

Haviland's landlord Yoon says he is working to fix the problem and will heat-treat her apartment and others again this week. He also says Haviland's family is behind in rent and he has let them stay out of kindness rather than evict them.

But in general, Anchorage landlords face few consequences for ignoring bedbug infestations, which can be expensive to fix.

The municipality has "limited options" to make sure landlords clean up their act, Barrett said.

If someone complains, the city can investigate, write a notice of violation and fine the owner $75 for not taking care of the problem. But the cost of extermination can be hundreds or even $1,000 per unit, Barrett said.

"A $75 fine is not going to motivate anybody into taking care of it," he said.

The city can also make a "notice of violation" of the housing code ordinance and order the owner to pay a $25 inspection fee. That, too, is easily ignored.

"The collection agency won't even mess with a $25 fee," Barrett said.

The next, more serious step would be to post the building as "not habitable."

"It's a pretty big step for a non-public health problem," Barrett said. "To shut a place down because of a bedbug infestation is a bit heavy-handed."

Barrett said he has limited resources. The same people who would follow up on bedbug complaints are also responsible for doing all the city's restaurant inspections.

"I would rather that landlords thought there were lots of consequences for (ignoring bedbug infestations)," he said. "But that is not the truth of the matter."

Coons, the tenants' rights lawyer, says tenants like the Haviland family also have little recourse.

They can notify the landlord of a maintenance problem and announce that unless it is fixed they will move out within a specified number of days.

Tenants can also sue for damages in small-claims court.

"Really, the only good option is to file an injunctive lawsuit in Superior Court, which pretty frankly can't be done without a lawyer. Someone really savvy can do it, but it's not a small lawsuit," Coons said.

Most difficult of all, the options often leave tenants still needing a new place to live.

And in a town where even a small, poorly maintained apartment can be "ridiculously expensive," Coons said, low-income tenants with bad credit or a history of evictions will likely find themselves with equally poor options.

Sandra Haviland says her family will use their Permanent Fund dividends to scrape together the money for a security deposit and rent on a new place. Ultimately, they hope to move into a mobile home. She feels lucky.

"There are people who can't afford to move," she said.

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