Local officials work to combat ‘invisible’ problem
By CRAIG HAUPERT, TED YOAKUM & SCOTT NOVAK
Chuck Austin said he used to think of bed bugs as a nursery rhyme parents told their kids before they tucked them in for the night.
But the owner of River Oak Apartments in Niles said he found out the hard way that bed bugs are all too real.
And that they can be a really big and expensive problem.
“They are at an epidemic proportion right now,” he said. “The biggest thing is they cause a lot of stress. … It is extremely devastating to people.
“The reality is when you get that phone call you have to figure out what to do.”
Austin has owned the 58-unit apartment complex since approximately 2005.
He said River Oak did not have any issues with bed bugs until around 2012.
“From a landlord perspective, it could easily put someone out of business depending on their circumstances,” he said.
Austin took a proactive approach and decided to treat the problem himself. He became a licensed exterminator and started treating his own apartment complex when bed bugs popped up, which happens on a sporadic basis.
He estimates he saves $5,000 a year. His treatments range from $300 to $800.
Taking it a step further, Austin actually started his own exterminator company, called CE-Solution.
HISTORY AND EMERGENCE
Pest Professor Stephen Kells witnessed his first live bed bug 15 years ago.
It was only a few years before that the tiny insect was considered by most to be all but extinct. In fact, while in school, the only other time Kells had seen the creature was studying the corpse of one on a slide under the lens of a microscope.
Since 2012, he has served 600 different clients, which could range from a single family home to a four-unit apartment building to a 1,000-unit apartment complex.
Austin said he serves many clients locally and as far away as Muskegon.
“It is everywhere,” he said. “We’ve grown to over 300,000 in sales in just a couple of years. … It’s been by word of mouth.”
HOW BED BUGS ARE HANDLED
In the City of Niles, bed bug complaints are handled by the city’s Division of Building Safety, which works closely with the fire department.
Chief Larry Lamb, of the Niles Fire Department, is often one of the people handling the complaints and can confirm bed bugs are a big problem.
He said he even deals with them within his own department. When firefighters respond to calls ranging from fires to medical issues, they step foot in homes and set down their bags in apartment complexes, places that could potentially contain bed bugs.
Since bed bugs are known for their ability to hitchhike, it is no surprise that they have hitched a ride back to the fire station.
“We have had them. There is none here we know of now,” Lamb said, adding that the department is treated quarterly for bed bugs as a preventative measure.
Like Austin, Lamb said the bed bugs weren’t any issue until around five years ago.
Now, his department gets a call about potential bed bugs every couple of weeks.
“It is by far the worst thing that we have in the city,” he said. “To get them is not indicative of any socioeconomic class, anyone can get them. They don’t care how large your wallet is.”
Lamb said the number of bed bug cases on record is not indicative of the problem, and likely reflect only cases in which they had to intervene, or take some type of action.
It is unlikely, he said, to get a comprehensive total of complaints since bed bug calls are listed as infestation calls and those calls are not broken down further into what type of infestation, whether it be bed bugs, cockroaches or any other type.
Lamb declined to provide the addresses of places at which a complaint of bed bugs was made.
He did say, however, for each case he is aware of the person responsible did everything they could to get rid of the problem.
“The ones that we’ve dealt with and interacted with try to take care of the issue as best they can,” he said. “Anytime we’ve identified there is a bed bug issue they’ve been corrected one way or another.”
According to city code dealing with bed bugs, the owner of a structure is responsible for eliminating pests prior to renting or leasing out a room or apartment.
Once an occupant moves in, they are responsible for keeping it pest free, except in cases when an infestation is caused by defects in the structure itself.
Lamb said enforcing these rules is difficult because it is nearly impossible to prove who is responsible, since bed bugs are tough to detect and can spread so quickly and easily.
“I think now most of them (landlords) realize cleaning them up is just a cost of doing to business and we don’t even get called,” Lamb said. “They know we will tell them that they have to take care of it and that’s what they do.”
The real problem, he believes, is not with landlords, in the case of rental situations, but with tenants who expose themselves to the risk of getting bed bugs, either unknowingly or recklessly through their behavior.
Bed bugs are often introduced via used furniture or in the belongings of someone who has been living in an infested situation.
Lamb cautioned people to be mindful of purchasing clothing, furniture or anything else that contains fabric from a second hand store, garage sale or friend.
“That one item you get for a nickel at the garage sale can actually cause you to have a $2,000 bill to treat this stupid plague for lack of a better term,” he said.
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