Bed Bug Basics

According to a 2015 survey by the National Pest Management Association, bed bugs have been found in all 50 states. One in five Americans has had a bed bug infestation in their home or a hotel or knows someone who has had an infestation. Bed bugs are not a sign of unsanitary conditions and are found in the homes of people of all income levels. They are most frequently found in areas of high turnover such as apartments, single family homes and hotels/motels (National Pest Management Association).

Ohio is experiencing a major resurgence of bed bugs. According to Orkin’s 2014 survey, four large cities in Ohio are among the top 10 cities in the US for bed bugs: Columbus (3rd), Cleveland (5th), Cincinnati (7th) and Dayton (10th). Bedbugs have been found in a wide range of properties in Ohio, including apartments and single-family homes, hotels/motels, hospitals, schools, firehouses, office buildings, courthouses, homeless shelters and college dormitories.

The Centers for Disease Control has identified bed bugs as a “pest of significant public health importance”; the EPA calls them a “public health pest”. Though the Ohio Landlord Tenant law is silent on bed bug and other insect infestations, landlords must ensure the premises are in a “fit and habitable condition”, implying no infestations of pests of any kind. The lack of a clear definition of landlord and tenant responsibilities in Ohio landlord tenant law has caused problems for tenants and landlords.

Ohio’s only bed bug law was passed in 1992 to address infestations in hotels, motels and Single Room Occupancies (SROs) (see ORC 3741.13). The state fire marshal’s office is responsible for enforcement of the law. Recent legislative efforts to define bed bugs as a type of vermin have not been successful. In 2010, the Ohio Department of Health convened a work group on bed bugs that issued a 2011 report making several recommendations. Little progress has been made to date.

What are bed bugs?

Bed bugs are small, parasitic insects that feed solely on the blood of people and animals while they sleep. Bed bugs feed at night and hide during the day in mattresses, box springs, bed frames, headboards, behind wallpaper and in cracks and crevices. They can survive several months without a meal, are comfortable in a wide range of temperatures and their eggs are extremely durable. They cling to shoes, clothing, furniture, suitcases and other belongings and easily travel to wherever humans are located. (For more information, see the OSU Extension’s Bed Bug website.)

Do bedbugs cause health problems?

While they are not known at this time to transmit disease, seven in 10 people who are bitten by bed bugs experience itchy, red welts; the more severe of these reactions may require medical attention. Bed bugs can also cause great anxiety and distress. Sometimes the bites lead to a secondary skin infection. The stress of an infestation can also exacerbate health issues such as asthma and depression. (See EPA’s bedbug website).

Bed bug pesticide use and misuse in attacking the infestation has become a related health problem. Increases in bedbug resistance to commonly used pesticides have led people to overuse and misuse pesticides. In 2011, the CDC issued an advisory, “Health Concerns about Misuse of Pesticides for Bed Bug Control”, and published a report, Acute Illnesses Associated With Insecticides Used to Control Bed Bugs — Seven States, 2003—2010. See also “The Health Risks of Bedbugs, Beyond Bumps in the Night”.

Concerns have been raised about pyrethroids, common in over-the-counter pesticides, and their potential negative effect on children’s behavior (see “Common insecticides may be linked to kids’ behavior problems”.) See also Urinary Metabolites of Organophosphate and Pyrethroid Pesticides and Behavioral Problems in Canadian Children.

How are bed bug infestations handled in Ohio?

Ohio is a “home rule” state where local governments can decide what is a public health nuisance. Many health departments consider bed bugs annoying but not a health risk since they are not known to transmit disease. Many do not offer to investigate complaints since they have no authority to issue orders. Others provide inspections and speak with the landlord and tenants about the infestation.

Franklin County, Cleveland and Cincinnati are among local governments in Ohio that have enacted ordinances or reinterpreted existing statutes to define bed bugs as a public health nuisance.

Columbus and Franklin County

  • Columbus health code requires landlords to maintain properties in an “insect-free” condition (see Chapter 221.92 Safe and Sanitary Maintenance of Structures and Premises). Columbus Code Enforcement inspects for infestations pursuant to the City’s Housing Code.
  • Franklin County Public Health considers bed bugs a public health nuisance and will investigate infestations. The county will take action if more than 10% of the units in a multi-family building are infested.
  • The Central Ohio Bed Bug Task Force was created to address bed bugs in many types of public and private buildings affecting several counties in central Ohio. The Task Force hosts a website, holds meetings, offers speakers for groups and holds an annual conference.

Cleveland and Cuyahoga County

  • Insect infestations are a public nuisance in Cleveland health and safety codes. The health department considers bed bugs to be an insect infestation. They will inspect and issue orders to landlords to treat infestations. The city created a program providing bed bug assistance for seniors.
  • In 2011, the Cuyahoga County Bed Bug Task Force was formed. The group hosts a website, holds regular meetings and typically presents an annual conference.

Cincinnati and Hamilton County

  • Cincinnati’s Municipal Code, Sec. 1601-17 – Vermin Control, was amended in 2008 to specifically cover bed bugs. However, neither City of Cincinnati Code Enforcement nor the Health Department provide enforcement.
  • According to a Hamilton County Health Department fact sheet, the county actively handles bed bugs as a public health nuisance.
  • The City of Cincinnati and Hamilton County formed a joint task force in 2008 and issued a strategic plan. Assistance was made available as a result of the plan but later curtailed for budget reasons.

Other counties actively addressing bedbugs:

  • Stark County Bed Bug Task Force “Over the past three years the Task Force has focused on community outreach and education through trainings and presentations, as well as, assisting community businesses and organizations create bed bug protocols. Over thirty community businesses and organizations have been trained, reaching approximately 1,800 individuals.”

  • Delaware General Health District is providing bed bug awareness workshops during 2015 for community members. These workshops give residents the tools they need to identify a problem, tips to help eliminate a problem, tips for travelers, and more specific information to address the needs of the community.

Does it matter whether bed bugs are considered a “public health nuisance” or code violation?

In cities and counties where bed bugs are considered a public health nuisance, or the local government has interpreted language in an existing code to cover bed bugs, the health department or code enforcement have the authority to investigate infested buildings and order the landlord to treat.

Tenants can give a notice, in writing, to the landlord, to correct the condition. If the landlord doesn’t address the complaint in a reasonable amount of time but not more than in 30 days, a tenant may deposit his/her rent with the Clerk of Courts, or may apply to the Court for an order to compel treatment of the bed bugs, or may terminate the rental agreement. In all cases, tenants should seek legal advice before taking any action (see Where to Find Assistance).

The lack of clarity over who pays for treatment is a gray area in Landlord Tenant law. The state has not passed legislation that defines bed bugs as a public health nuisance. Some landlords in cities where the pest has not been declared a public health nuisance may use this as a justification for not treating for bed bug infestations. However, the question of “habitability” of the building arises. Landlords are required in the Landlord Tenant Law to “. . . make all repairs and do whatever reasonably necessary to put and keep the premises in a fit and habitable condition . . . keep all common areas of the premises in a safe and sanitary condition”. It can be argued that a building infested with bed bugs is not ““fit and habitable”.

Can tenants be held responsible for bed bugs?

Landlords are sometimes charging tenant(s) for the cost of bed bug treatment. While this can be a contentious issue, some local health departments are telling tenants that landlords are within their rights to charge for bed bug treatment. Some landlords write addendums to lease agreements declaring the unit is free of infestation and the tenant is responsible for treatment if bed bugs are later found in the unit.

HUD has issued specific bed bug guidance for HUD subsidized and insured properties (Guidelines on Addressing Infestations in HUD-insured and Assisted Multifamily Housing) and Public Housing Authorities (Guidelines on Bedbug Control and Prevention in Public Housing).

Tenants play a key role in the prevention and treatment of bed bugs. The Landlord Tenant Law requires tenants to “…keep the part of the premises the tenant occupies and uses safe and sanitary…” While bed bugs are not related to sanitation, tenants have a responsibility to keep the premises safe from bed bugs. This extends to tenants preparing the unit for treatment.

Given the complexity of bed bug infestations, it makes sense for landlords and tenants to communicate when infestations occur, consult their local health department and/or code enforcement for guidance and, if necessary, seek legal counsel.

What if a tenant is disabled and is unable to prepare for bed bug treatment?

Disabled tenants unable to handle preparations for treatment can request “reasonable accommodation” through state and federal fair housing law. According to a statement by HUD and the Department of Justice (DOJ):

A reasonable accommodation” is a change, exception, or adjustment to a rule, policy, practice, or service that may be necessary for a person with a disability to have an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling, including public and common use spaces. Since rules, policies, practices, and services may have a different effect on persons with disabilities than on other persons, treating persons with disabilities exactly the same as others will sometimes deny them an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling. The Act makes it unlawful to refuse to make reasonable accommodations to rules, policies, practices, or services when such accommodations may be necessary to afford persons with disabilities an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.

The HUD/DOJ statement further addresses the issue of the cost of accommodations and what happens if the landlord and tenant cannot agree:

Courts have ruled that the Act may require a housing provider to grant a reasonable accommodation that involves costs, so long as the reasonable accommodation does not pose an undue financial and administrative burden and the requested accommodation does not constitute a fundamental alteration of the provider’s operations. The financial resources of the provider, the cost of the reasonable accommodation, the benefits to the requester of the requested accommodation, and the availability of other, less expensive alternative accommodations that would effectively meet the applicant or resident’s disability-related needs must be considered in determining whether a requested accommodation poses an undue financial and administrative burden.

For additional guidance, see Fair Housing Overview and Reasonable Accommodations and Modifications, from the Ohio Housing Conference on November 3, 2014.

The information provided on this website is not intended as a substitute for legal counsel. Contact Ohio Legal Services or another legal resource for assistance.

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