This article was written by the team of NYC-based housing experts at nonprofit JustFix
Bed bugs, at one time or another, affect us all, but it is your landlord’s job to exterminate and eliminate bed bugs.
Use our online tool to write a Letter of Complaint to your landlord
If you have bed bugs in your apartment, remember that it's not your fault and you shouldn't feel ashamed. New York City has some of the highest rates of bed bug infestation in the nation, and anyone can get bed bugs. The good news is that your landlord has a legal obligation to exterminate and eliminate bed bugs.
Not sure if you have bed bugs? Learn how to identify bed bugs in your apartment.
Landlords may try to blame you for a bed bug infestation or charge you for extermination but, legally, landlords are responsible for exterminating and eliminating bed bugs in rental apartments.
Some tenants may prefer to hire their own exterminator and deduct their costs from their monthly rent (a process called “repair and deduct”). While this may seem like an appealing option, New York State law does not provide a clear right to repair and deduct. If you sue your landlord to recover the cost of extermination or the owner sues you for unpaid rent, a judge will look into several factors, including whether you alerted the landlord of the situation with adequate notice and whether you spent a reasonable amount on the remediation. Unless you can afford to pay for extermination yourself without future reimbursement, you should insist the landlord hire an exterminator — it is the landlord’s legal responsibility.
While the owner bears the cost of hiring an exterminator, the cost of preparation may fall on you or those you live with. These costs can include purchasing sealed plastic bags for belongings and disinfecting clothes in high heat dryers. You will also have to clear out clutter or closets in advance of extermination. The landlord, however, should pay to patch holes and deal with other structural fixes to the apartment.
Depending on your relationship with your landlord, you can try to negotiate a reduction in your rent to cover some of your expenses such as medical bills, lost furniture, or preparation materials. But, most landlords won’t just offer you a break on the rent. For that reason, save all your receipts to document your costs, and consider starting a small claims case against your landlord, particularly if the owner didn’t respond to your complaints quickly or efficiently.
If your landlord asks you to move furniture as part of the extermination, and you have a disability that makes moving furniture difficult or impossible, you can request a reasonable accommodation under the New York City Human Rights Law (“NYCHRL”). Under the NYCHRL, the landlord must engage in a dialogue and provide you with a written response to your request. If the landlord fails to do so, file a human rights complaint.
While every renter should consider purchasing renters’ insurance, sadly, most policies do not cover bed bugs or other infestations. Consider protecting your furniture and personal items in advance by buying a strong mattress encasement and taking these additional precautions.
Below are some tips for pressuring your landlord to exterminate bed bugs.
Contact your landlord or management company directly and ask them to send a licensed bed bug extermination company. If you live in Public Housing (aka NYCHA), report the problem to NYCHA online or by calling (718) 707-7771.
Prior to the extermination, request information about how to prepare the apartment from the extermination company. Most reputable companies will visit your apartment several times to treat the bed bugs over the course of a few weeks both to exterminate and inspect for reoccurrences.
If your landlord doesn’t respond to your complaints, call 311* to report the issue to the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (“HPD”). When you call 311, say “apartment maintenance”, or report the issue online. HPD should send an inspector to your apartment within about a week.
After an inspection, a violation should appear on the HPD website within approximately one week. The City classifies bed bugs as a Class “B” or “hazardous” violation. Once HPD places a violation, the landlord has 30 days to eliminate the problem. An HPD violation also provides strong evidence that you indeed have bed bugs in your apartment if you ever need to prove the condition to a judge or another fact-finder.
While taking photos of the bed bugs or your bites can also provide some evidence of the problem, judges in New York City will likely consider an HPD violation the most compelling evidence of an infestation. For that reason, you should focus on getting the City to inspect your apartment. If HPD does not promptly come to inspect or fails to place a violation after an inspection, report the issue to 311 again until you see a violation on the HPD website.
Unfortunately, if you live in NYCHA, you cannot call 311 to report poor conditions. Instead, see the next steps!
JustFix offers both private rental tenants and public housing tenants the ability to send a United States Postal Service certified letter of complaint to your landlord free of charge. While a letter of complaint does not force the landlord to make repairs, it informs landlords of their obligations under the law and provides the little extra push some owners need.
If you think a letter of complaint won’t move the dial for your landlord, consider starting a case for repairs in housing court called an “HP Action.” Both NYCHA and private renters can file HP Actions for repairs needed in your apartment or the common areas of the building. Learn how to file an HP Action by visiting the NYC Housing Court website. For extra tips, visit Housing Court Answers website.
*KNOW THE RISK: If you are a “market tenant” (i.e. not NYCHA and not rent stabilized/controlled), you may have fewer protections against eviction or large rent increases.
Calling 311 or starting an HP Action may upset your landlord. An upset landlord could refuse to renew your lease or may increase your rent. This is illegal retaliation. If you’re concerned about retaliation, you can call and report a heating violation anonymously. The downside? The inspector may not be able to get into the building and won’t be able to measure the temperature inside your individual apartment.
Unfortunately, bed bugs like to travel. See if your neighbors also have complaints about bed bugs using JustFix’s Who Owns What building research tool.
To effectively exterminate bed bugs and prevent their reoccurrence, the owner should provide extermination services to all surrounding units (adjacent, above, and below). Because your neighbors would also need to prepare their apartments for extermination, consider speaking with them about the problem. If the landlord receives multiple reports of bed bugs or several neighbors call 311, the landlord may take swifter, more effective action. Even though talking about bed bugs can feel embarrassing, remember, bed bugs are not your fault.
If you and your neighbors are rent stabilized or rent controlled, you can also request a rent freeze or reduction from New York State. The New York State Division of Homes and Community Renewal (“DHCR”) has the power to freeze or even reduce rents in rent stabilized and rent controlled apartments based on poor conditions such as bed bugs. To file a complaint, fill out DHCR’s rent reduction form. To pressure your landlord to make the repairs, encourage your neighbors to do so as well!
For more commonly asked questions on bed bugs, check out Met Council on Housing’s excellent Bedbug Fact Sheet and these tips from the City of New York.