San Francisco's handling of bedbug problems comes under fire 

At a hearing Monday dominated by complaints from residents of single-room occupancy hotels, Supervisor Jane Kim took the Department of Public Health to task over inspections designed to abate San Francisco’s problem with human-blood-sucking bedbugs.

The Board of Supervisors passed legislation in December that allows the department to fine landlords $1,000 a day for persistent nuisances such as trash, roaches or bedbugs. But since the ordinance took effect in January, no such fines have been levied, which prompted Kim to question the agency’s responsiveness.

Dr. Rajiv Bhatia, the department’s director of environmental health, said increased media attention can cause fear of bedbugs where there are none. He also said there are only two inspectors assigned to all The City’s shelters and hotels.

Kim said that’s inadequate to deal with a growing number of bedbug complaints.

“I understand not all the complaints are valid, some based on fear,” Kim said after Bhatia’s talk. “But frankly, I was disappointed. It was a poor presentation.”

Kim said the department should consider enforcement methods like those of the Department of Building Inspection, which more often takes cases to court, where landlords are generally fined $1,800 for repeat violations. But that department’s policy only allows investigation of bedbug complaints if other possible violations are in play, whereas the health department is the lead agency on health-related residential nuisances.

Bedbugs are small parasitic insects that get nourishment from human blood and typically feed late at night. They are not carriers of disease.

Kim said her office is exploring legislation that would require the Public Health Department to document cases in more detail, possibly set a time frame for property owners to eradicate the bugs and set penalties for property owners who fail to comply with bedbug abatement.

Bhatia later said the $1,000-per-day fine is not easily applied because fault has to be established on the part of the landlord or tenant. That can be difficult, since bedbugs can travel from place to place with people and their belongings. Bhatia presented figures showing that only 30 percent of the 1,100 complaints to his agency in 2009 and 2010 resulted in violation notices.

Complaints to supervisors centered on the Mission, Tenderloin and South of Market neighborhoods. Alden Lougee, one of those who spoke in the public comment period, said he filmed thousands of bedbugs crawling out of a crack in the wall of a room commissioned by the San Francisco Homeless Outreach Team.

“They detect your breathing, and that’s when they come out,” Lougee said.

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Dan Schreiber

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