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Buffalo Municipal Housing Agency fields rash of bedbug complaints

The 91-year-old woman at first assumed the black bugs she spotted on her couch were fruit flies.

But when a neighbor at the Monsignor Geary Apartments on Bailey Avenue looked at the bites on the woman's arms, the older woman learned otherwise.

"You have bedbugs," the neighbor told her.

Other apartments in the building have bedbugs, too, the neighbor said.

And so began a weeks-long ordeal that Lovejoy Councilman Richard A. Fontana said has been difficult for the 91-year-old woman, who asked that her name not be used. But she is not the only one dealing with the pests.

Bedbugs have shown up in about 18 of the 27 public housing complexes in recent years, according to records of the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority. And the agency fielded 309 bedbug complaints over a recent one-year period, including nine at the 100-unit Monsigner Geary complex, the documents show.

The BMHA, which has a total of more than 4,000 apartments, in recent years has spent $80,000 to $100,000 annually on bedbug extermination, according to one top agency executive.

But Fontana says the agency needs to do a better job addressing the pests.

"There's a disconnect with the staff," he said. "They need to have a better bedbug policy."

Dawn Sanders-Garrett, the executive director of the housing agency, was scheduled to attend a City Hall meeting last Tuesday to discuss the issue, but she was unable to make the session. She sent Fontana a letter explaining her agency's procedures for dealing with bedbugs.  Those procedures include the BMHA's contracting an exterminator and tenants properly preparing their apartments before the exterminator arrives and doing proper follow-up afterwards, Sanders-Garrett wrote.

Failure to follow these and related house keeping requirements could result in tenant eviction, she said.

The 91-year-old bedbug victim at first notified the staff of Monsigner Gear senior housing and later called Fontana, a family friend. He also contacted the housing agency's building staff.

The exterminator came the same day Fontana called, and the woman was told her couch was infested with bedbugs, she said.

The exterminator sprayed the apartment, but agency staff told Fontana that it's the tenant's responsibility to get rid of her infested couch, according to the councilman.

"They told a 91-year-old woman to wrap up her couch and take it outside," Fontana said.

"I couldn't do that," the woman said.

The councilman considered going over to the eight-story building to remove the furniture for his elderly friend, but then thought better of it.

"I told them it's preposterous to make me come and remove a bedbug-infested couch," Fontana said. "How do I go home after touching bedbugs? What if I'm in the elevator and they come out? It's important to do it right. You have to protect the building."

The BMHA eventually ended up removing the couch, according to Fontana.

But that wasn't the end of the troubles, he said.

The 91-year-old woman was told to leave her apartment while it was being sprayed, but the BMHA didn't provide an alternative place for her to go,  Fontana said. So the woman — who has no family in the area —  stayed with a friend on another floor of the apartment building for the two or three hours it took to spray her apartment.

"Guess what they found on her in the friend's apartment? Bedbugs," Fontana said.

Fontana said he then insisted that an exterminator check  the friend's apartment. No additional bugs were found there, the 91-year-old said.

Last Monday, about three weeks after the initial spraying, the exterminator returned to the 91-year-old's apartment for a follow-up. No bugs were found.

The woman remains concerned, and so does Fontana, because they've been told bedbugs probably are in a neighbor's apartment. That apartment is so cluttered and dirty, the woman said, that the exterminator was unable to spray it for pests. The woman suspects, as does Fontana, that bedbugs from that neighbor's apartment migrated to her unit and others on the floor.

"They haven't taken care of that yet," Fontana said .

"They need to spray the whole building," the 91-year-old woman added.

Furniture removal wasn't mentioned in the policy that Garrett-Sanders provided Fontana. But Modesto Candelario, the agency's assistant executive director, confirmed tenants are generally expected to remove their own bug-infested furniture when removal is deemed necessary. Agency staff members do instruct tenants on proper removal techniques, and will, if asked, assist tenants who are unable to remove the furniture themselves, he said.

Candelario also said that while the BMHA does not direct tenants where to go when apartments are being sprayed, many complexes,  including Monsignor Geary, have community rooms where tenants can wait.

Candelario added that the BMHA is addressing concerns Fontana and the 91-year-old woman raised about the neighboring tenant whose apartment is suspected of having bedbugs. He declined to provide specifics to protect tenant's privacy. But Sanders-Garrett's letter said the agency is "following the required procedure" per individual resident leases.

It would be cost prohibitive, Candelario said, to routinely spray an entire building whenever bedbugs are found, but  the agency has done that a couple times over the past 18 months when warranted. Generally, he said, the agency hires an exterminator to spray an affected apartment as well the ones on either side and directly above and below.

The housing agency received the largest number of bedbug complaints from July 1, 2016, through June 30, 2017,  from some of its largest complexes, particularly Kenfield Homes and Commodore Perry Towers, followed by Frederick Douglas Towers, Shaffer Village, Marine Drive Apartments, Langfield Homes, Stuyvesant Apartments and Ferry-Grider Homes, the BMHA records show.

While the 91-year-old woman said an exterminator was at her apartment the same day Fontana contacted the BMHA, others say it can take a week before an exterminator comes after bedbugs are reported, Council members were told  last Tuesday.

"Response time is so long, it sometimes spreads to another apartment,"  said Joseph Mascia, a former BMHA tenant commissioner.

In her letter to Fontana, Sanders-Garrett said the agency hopes to address bedbug concerns more promptly by entering into an annual extermination contract, rather than continuing its current policy of contracting with exterminators on a case-by-case basis.

As a longer-range solution, the BMHA is considering a heat method, rather than spray, to eradicate bedbugs. Heating is more expensive, but apparently more efficient and effective, Candelario said.

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