What are my legal remedies for bed bugs if I live in New York City?
This page is a special focus on legal questions relating to bed bugs in New York City - one of the most common locations where people run into bed bug problems, primarily because there is such a concentration of people living in close quarters. This makes it extremely easy to spread them from building to building.
The obligatory (and important) disclaimer - I'm not your lawyer, and this isn't legal advice. You need to run any legal questions by a local lawyer, because they will practice there, will know the details of city and state laws, and will be able to assist you with any unique facts about your situation which I can't include in my answer here.
Does my landlord have to get rid of bed bugs?
Yes - by law, they are required to get rid of them in New York. This is for a couple of reasons. First of all, there is something called the "implied warranty of habitability." Basically, regardless of what your contract with your landlord says, there is a "warranty" that your apartment is going to be habitable - that it is fit for people to live in without them having to deal with unsafe conditions or things that could harm their health. A New York Housing Court decision makes clear that bed bugs violate this warranty - they have a substantial effect on your life, "feeding upon one's blood in hoards nightly turning what is supposed to be bed rest or sleep into a hellish experience."
Even absent this warranty, there are provisions of both the housing and health codes in New York City that require landlords to keep a dwelling they own clean and free of vermin. Landlords are routinely cited as violating the New York City housing code for failing to exterminate bed bugs. You can read a good overview of all these codes here.
What can I do short of actually hiring a lawyer to make my landlord get rid of them?
You do have at least a couple of options. First of all, you can call 311. 311 is sort of like 911, but for things that aren't emergencies. The city provides a lot of services that way, and one of them is reporting bed bug infestations of apartment buildings and other locations.
Based on 2009 records, a little under half the time 311 will issue a citation to the landlord for a violation of the City's housing code. These citations require the landlord to correct the problem within 30 days. It's possible your landlord may refuse to do anything anyway, despite the violation, but at a minimum this will give you good documentary evidence for future actions that: a) you have an infestation in your apartment and b) your landlord was told about it, but refused to do anything in violation of the law.
If you're in public housing, you have a different option - the New York City Housing Authority. 311 will take reports regarding bed bugs in public housing as well, but you can also call (718) 707-7771. They are supposed to send out an exerminator, check for bed bugs, and then schedule a treatment and a follow-up. The problem: many people have complained that NYCHA is even slower to respond than a lot of landlords. If you run into that problem, you should consider getting together with your neighbors to complain as a group.
What is housing court?
This is the next option up if you don't have a lawyer, and you should do it after you've already called 311 as described above.
You can see an example of a housing court case here.
If you want to go to housing court without a lawyer, you can find a detailed guide as to how it works here. It's not specific to bed bugs, but it gives you a very good explanation of the process and what you'll need to do. You can also find another good guide here, as well as here.
The short version (described in more detail in the guides above):
You will go down to the court clerk's office in your borough. It will cost you $45, and you'll need to fill out some forms to get a court date. You'll also be given court papers that you have to deliver to your landlord, usually via certified mail so there's proof of delivery.
On your court date, you will have to come down to court and, if you haven't hired an attorney, you will act as your own advocate. You'll need to prove that your apartment is infested with bed bugs and that nothing has been done about it. This is where the 311 call described above comes in handy - it's easy proof, and if your landlord blows the 30 day deadline, they'll be the one who looks bad.
The court can give you a number of remedies. They could order your landlord to fix the problem. They could fine them for failing to do so. They can also order what is called an "abatement" - basically, a reduction in your rent by some amount to make up for the failure to repair the property by getting rid of the bugs.
What if I can't afford a lawyer? Can I get one appointed for me?
Generally, no - this is a civil case, and court appointed attorneys are mainly for when you've committed a crime.
What can a lawyer do for me?
A lawyer knows the process and often get you a better outcome. You should think about how much money you may have lost as a result of having bed bugs. Have you been forced to throw away furniture? Pay for an exterminator yourself? It may be worth it to pay a lawyer to get a shot at getting some of that money back. They will be better able to represent you in housing court (and certainly in a regular civil case). You should also think about whether your neighbors are suffering the same problem. Housing court cases can be for groups of tenants, and you may be able to get a lawyer to represent you as well as multiple neighbors at the same time - which would cut down on how much each of you has to pay.
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