That is the message from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, which approved an ordinance this month intended to give the city a more accurate picture of where the pests lurk.
Exterminators will now be required to report to the Department of Public Health about the number of units that they treat for bedbugs each month. While they won’t have to include the address of the infested apartments or hotels, they will be required to identify each unit’s census tract to help chart the bugs’ distribution around the city.
“From a public health point of view, it’s very important to be able to target your resources, and this will give us a chance to do this,” said Karen Cohn, a program manager at the department’s Environmental Health Section.
While the bedbug population has increased nationally in recent years, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, San Francisco does not have reliable data on the persistent pests’ prevalence here.
The ordinance, sponsored by Supervisor Jane Kim, reflects concern among advocates for tenants that the city is unaware of how widespread the blood-sucking bugs are.
“Tenants advocates have been saying for years that we’re experiencing a grave problem, if not an epidemic, of bedbugs in the city,” said Tommi Avicolli Mecca, director of the counseling program for the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco, a tenants rights organization. “I think that a lot of people thought that we were exaggerating or being alarmist. But I think by better tracking, everyone will have a better sense of how widespread the problem is,” Avicolli Mecca said.
In 2010, the San Francisco Health Department received 370 complaints about bedbugs. Of those, the department was able to confirm infestation in 152 cases. But these complaints by no means reflect all such infestations in the city. “Most people can resolve these problems without coming to us,” Cohn said.
Brad Bishop, owner of Sleep Tight Pest Control, said his firm treats about 500 units a year, primarily in San Francisco.
Bedbugs can be tough to fight, requiring multiple treatments to vanquish them. The bugs sometimes persist after they’re thought to be long gone because they can remain dormant for long periods after feeding. Although irritating, the pest is not known to transmit any disease, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Some San Franciscans may be surprised where the bugs turn up. “Better data will get rid of some of the stigma around this issue that bedbugs only happen to poor people or in neighborhoods that are struggling,” said Matthias Mormino, Kim’s legislative aide.
The new ordinance also requires more transparency from landlords. When a prospective tenant asks about an apartment or room’s bedbug history, the landlord or property manager will have to disclose whether the unit has been infested in the previous two years.
“That is taken from a provision that New York introduced two years ago,” Mormino said. “It’s really for the tenants’ protection.”
Under the San Francisco ordinance, the landlord is only required to provide the bedbug disclosure to prospective tenants who ask.
Tourist hotels and motels are not required to disclose their bedbug history to guests. “We don’t want to scare people off,” said Bishop, who serves on San Francisco’s Bedbug Working Group, which crafted the ordinance. “The hotels are required to do everything else in our legislation, except tell potential people when they’re coming in.”
The ordinance also requires the Health Department to produce literature about the rights and responsibilities of pest control operators, tenants, and property owners and managers in bedbug abatement.