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KERA's One Crisis Away project focuses on North Texans living on the financial edge.

Bed Bugs: An Expensive Pest Problem That Low-Income Renters Often Pay For

Courtney Collins
KERA news
Bed bugs in different stages of development

Bed bugs can be especially overwhelming for low-income families. The pests are drawn to apartment complexes with lots of people packed into small spaces, and they cause pain, anxiety and financial stress.

Some apartment complexes treat the infestations, then send the bill straight to the tenants.

Something wasn’t right

When her little girls started waking up each morning with red welts on their faces, Shelby Rodriguez was worried. It was summer, so she assumed they were mosquito bites. Besides, she had already checked their mattresses thoroughly and had seen no sign of bed bugs.

But the bites kept appearing, and she couldn't shake the nagging feeling that something was in the house. So she pulled her toddlers' bunk bed away from the wall and investigated with a flashlight.

"And that's when I found them. All along the frame, the floorboards and then in the crevices and the screw holes of the beds is where they were hiding out. From eggs, to the early stages of the bed bugs, and to the ones that had been feasting on us, which you could tell because they were the darker, brownish-red color,” she says.

Taking action

Rodriguez and her husband called the apartment manager to report the problem. They lived in Euless at the time. After a week with no action, they showed up in person, requesting pest control — still nothing. 

Three weeks later, they went to the Texas Tenants' Union for advice, then made a formal request in writing. At this point, the bedbugs were everywhere. They threw out two beds, a crib, all the mattresses and their living room set.

"Everything that we had tossed we had only had for about three months, so that was a few thousand dollars that went out the window,” she says.

The apartment complex did respond to the written request and treated the apartment for bedbugs. The Rodriguez family was shaken, though, and didn't want to finish out their lease. The complex denied their request to leave early and charged them the final three months' rent.

A low-income issue

Mike Merchant is an urban entomologist for the Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Service. He says a lot of North Texas tenants just like Rodriguez are fighting bed bugs. Unlike her, many of them are stuck paying for the treatment themselves — or just going without. That's because many rental companies have added a page to their lease that puts responsibility on the renter.

"They're usually asked to sign a statement saying they've inspected the apartment and there are no bed bugs in their apartment,” he says.

Merchant says there's just one problem with that.

"Even a professional cannot go into a freshly painted, cleaned up, empty apartment and be able to tell whether there's bed bugs lurking in the walls."

The reason why is pretty unsettling. Bed bugs have no interest in empty apartments because there's nothing to eat. They're hiding out, waiting.

"They've got us to feed on, and it has nothing to do with how sanitary we are, or aren't,” Merchant says. “It's just we're providing blood for them at night, and all they need is a place to hide during the day."

Trying to fix an expensive problem

So tenants move in, report that their apartment is clear, even though bed bugs may just be out of sight, then discover them weeks or months later. But, they've signed that extra page on the lease, so the cost of extermination is on them. It can run from $300-$1,500. And that's not an option for many low-income families. Merchant says they'll often try to treat the problem themselves, which doesn't work. Then some families give up and move out, bringing the bed bugs with them.

"For someone with money, it's going to be frustrating, but [it's] something you can take care of. But if you don't have enough money to pay the pest control, then you're just going to be stuck with it,” Merchant says. “Perhaps for years.”

And that's something Shelby Rodriguez wouldn't wish on anyone.

"I mean, my kids were sleeping on the floor at one point, crying, not understanding what's going on. So you feel powerless, and everywhere you go, you just feel like you're on the lookout for bed bugs,” she says.

And even 10 months later, settled into a new, pest-free apartment in Bedford, she doesn't expect that feeling to go away anytime soon.

Courtney Collins has been working as a broadcast journalist since graduating from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2004. Before coming to KERA in 2011, Courtney worked as a reporter for NPR member station WAMU in Washington D.C. While there she covered daily news and reported for the station’s weekly news magazine, Metro Connection.