Renters and owners must unite to defeat bloodsucking scourge
by Gregory Beatty
Bedbugs have been in the news a lot lately. Usually, media coverage focuses on what can be done to rid a dwelling of an infestation. That’s important, of course. But for landlords and tenants, there’s a another side to this domestic scourge.
When the bugs invade, what are a tenant’s rights and what are the building owner’s responsibilities?
That topic was addressed last fall at a forum organized by Pro Bono Law Saskatchewan, the Regina Public Library and the Office of Residential Tenancies with lawyer Milad Alishahi and ORT director Dale Beck.
Alishahi said landlords are rarely successful pinning the blame for bedbugs on the tenant.
“Bedbugs are so erratic and spontaneous,” said Alishahi. “They can go from dwelling to dwelling, so it’s almost impossible to prove on a balance of probabilities, which the law requires, that the tenant caused them and not someone visiting, or coming in to fix the plumbing or whatever.”
Once an infestation occurs, Alishahi added, the landlord is automatically in breach of s.49.1 of the Residential Tenancies Act, which requires that they maintain a habitable dwelling.
“Even a quick response to an infestation does not alleviate the landlord of their s.49.1 obligation,” Alishahi said.
“However, prompt action does mitigate damages.
“If you go on the premises quickly and make sure the infestation is professionally treated, less property is likely to be damaged and the tenant’s health is likely to be better than if the infestation continues over a long period.”
Professional treatment means exactly that. A landlord can’t just go in and spray insecticide around, as the bugs are very resilient. A full chemical or heat treatment is required. Alishahi acknowledged that it was a heavy expense for a landlord. But when tenants have sued landlords who haven’t acted promptly and professionally, damages have reached $10,000.
Alishahi advised landlords to protect themselves by conducting regular inspections of their properties. Sniffer dogs are effective bedbug detectors.
Alishahi also addressed the stigma bedbugs carry in our society.
“Tenants might be ashamed that they have them and think that only dirty people get them. But bedbugs can spread very easily, and it’s something you shouldn’t be ashamed of.”
Because of the stigma, tenants sometimes hesitate to report an infestation.
“You want to find out about the problem before it spreads,” Alishahi said. “But you can’t do that if tenants are ashamed and won’t come to you. So there needs to be a shift in the mindset so tenants feel comfortable asking the landlord to deal with it as soon as possible, and the landlord needs to encourage that.”
Beck echoed the sentiment during his presentation, pointing out that the ORT runs an inquiry line that gets 30,000 calls a year. Staff answer questions from both landlords and tenants about the act.
“The best solution is always a direct one between the tenant and landlord.” Beck said. “If you’re going to have an ongoing relationship you need to work together to solve problems. But if you can’t, the ORT has a mandate to provide simple and quick adjudication of disputes that would otherwise tie up the courts.
Speaking about bedbugs, Beck noted that tenants have to co-operate with the landlord.
“The exterminator will give them a sheet of instructions and tenants do get evicted if they are unable or unwilling to cooperate. Hoarders are at great risk as they will be required to divest themselves of a lot of property and that can be difficult for them. If they move out, they have to leave their possessions behind because no other landlord would permit them to enter their premises.”
Dumpster diving is another no-no, as it could bring infested furniture and other belongings into a dwelling. And like Alishahi, Beck championed an open-door policy for tenants reporting bedbugs.
“Infestations have been dropping in some areas of North America, and the reason for that, as I understand it, is that there’s been a change in the culture.
“Nobody stigmatizes someone who has a cold. People catch colds. It’s the same with bedbugs.”
Have a problem with vampire insects, evil landlords or plague-spreading renters? Learn your rights! Contact the Office of Residential Tenancies at 1-888-215-2222 or go to www.justice.gov.sk.ca/ORT.