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Despite Calls For Help, Bedbugs Infest Louisville Public Housing Complex

Dosker Manor on an overcast summer evening. The apartments are across the street from the University of Louisville Hospital.
Dosker Manor on an overcast summer evening. The apartments are across the street from the University of Louisville Hospital.

The bedbugs invade DeAnna Malone’s apartment every night.

They creep through the vents in her bathroom. They crawl through the sockets on her wall and the cracks along the floor. They climb up her bed to feast.

“They bite you, it feels like you’re on fire,” she said. “They bite you everywhere.”

Malone, 68, has lived with bedbugs at Dosker Manor for years. Her neighbors at the public housing complex on the eastern edge of downtown Louisville say the whole place is infested.

Lisa Osanka, interim director of the Louisville Metro Housing Authority, said she can’t comment on anything she hasn’t seen personally. She is confident her agency effectively manages residents’ complaints.

“Our property maintenance team works hard every day to make sure our units are in good shape,” Osanka said.

But the agency’s records show that residents in nearly half of all Dosker Manor apartments — more than 340 units — have complained about bedbugs in the last two and a half years.

In 150 units, residents have asked the housing authority for help at least three times. Thirty-one complaints came from the same apartment. A new work order for that unit was still pending last week.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires public housing to be “decent, safe, sanitary and in good repair.” Osanka said federally certified inspectors examine public housing in Louisville each year to ensure those standards are met.

When Dosker Manor was inspected in October 2017, federal records show, the complex scored 39 out of a possible 100. Of 6,924 public housing complexes in the United States, about 100 scored worse than Dosker.

Each night, before Malone climbs into the bed in her 10th-floor apartment, she sprays it down with 91 percent rubbing alcohol and hopes it will keep the bugs away. She laughs when asked if the housing authority takes care of her and her neighbors.

“You better take care of yourself,” she said. “That’s the only thing I can say.”

Bedbug Resurgence Still Strong In Dosker Manor

Bedbugs are about the size of an apple seed. They feed exclusively on blood, preferably human. They don’t jump or fly. But they crawl fast and lay hundreds of eggs in their lifetimes.

Their resistance to chemical eradication is growing, and the bugs are a global problem. Experts say an infestation in one complex can quickly become a citywide issue as residents ride buses, go to hospitals or work.

A resurgence of bedbugs began to spread throughout the United States about a decade ago. Data from the city’s MetroCall 311 system show almost 2,900 complaints of bedbugs in apartment complexes, homes, and hotels across Jefferson County since 2010. About 130 of those 311 calls were about public housing. The records show that many of the reports came as a last resort, after the housing authority ignored or didn’t adequately address infestations.

“Caller reports their apartment and laundry room is infested with bed bugs,” the notes from a July 2016 call to 311 read. “The caller reports they have brought spray to treat it and creams for the bites but the management isn't doing anything to resolve it.”

Last month, a caller reported an infestation in another apartment. “Bed bugs in this unit for a long time and nothing is being done about it,” the call notes read.

The 311 calls spur property maintenance cases, which are tracked online. A review of that system indicates that, in about 73 percent of the calls from public housing, a code officer logged an inspection in response — and sometimes several inspections.

But Robert Kirchdorfer, director of the city’s Codes and Regulations Department, said his inspectors aren’t going into Dosker Manor, or any of the eight public housing complexes in Jefferson County.

Kirchdorfer doesn't know why the online system lists so many inspections. But he said those records don’t necessarily mean an inspection took place.

The codes department’s policy dictates that its officers should not cite properties owned by the city, including the Louisville Metro Housing Authority.

“[The housing authority] are their own entity,” Kirchdorfer said. “If we get a complaint, we pass it on."

Kirchdorfer said he would need to research whether records showing multiple inspections indicates that inspectors went to public housing despite the policy.

Kirchdorfer said his department closes cases after sending complaints to the housing authority via email. Code officials do not follow up to see if the housing authority addressed the problem.

Osanka, the housing authority’s interim leader, said these complaints are tracked along with those from residents in a “work order” system. Almost 10 percent of the nearly 12,000 work order requests made at Dosker since 2016 mention bedbugs, often along with roaches and mice.

Work orders are also created “immediately” for 311 complaints, Osanka said.

But the housing authority’s records show that doesn’t always happen.

Dosker Manor residents made 10 last-resort calls to 311 since 2016; in the weeks that followed, the agency didn’t open work orders for at least five of them, records show.

Experts: Eradication Takes Time, Effort

Work orders at Dosker Manor are closed only after exterminators see that no additional treatment is needed, Osanka said.

About 74 percent of the 1,200 bedbug work orders were closed within one day. Less than two dozen were kept open longer than a week.

But even low-level infestations take three to four visits to solve, according to Susannah Reese, program coordinator at the Northeast IPM Center at Cornell University, which studies and promotes integrated pest management.

If the infestation is more severe, it could take even longer.

Osanka said the housing authority primarily depends on chemicals. She said the agency has an integrated pest management plan, but has not shared a copy with KyCIR.

Residents at Dosker see the workers spraying, but the bugs remain. This leads residents like John Wayne Johnson to speculate that the chemicals are watered down — and to joke they are actually spraying bug food.

“They’re spraying, but they don’t even kill the roaches,” Johnson said. “So you know it ain’t going to kill a bedbug.”

But Reese said spraying chemicals isn’t always enough, because that requires every bug to walk through the spray while it’s still effective, which is about two weeks.

“It’s a gamble,” Reese said. “You really have to know where they're hiding, and use enough chemicals — and an effective chemical — for them to be killed by it.”

Property managers and pest control companies sometimes blame the tenant and clutter, Reese said, but she disagrees. She discourages people from throwing out furniture, especially those who can least afford to, and encourages housing authorities to purchase heat chambers, vaccuums and furniture steamers to assist residents in treating their furniture.

“We can control bedbugs, even in a cluttered situation,” Reese said.

The housing authority's residents are responsible for buying their own furniture, Osanka said. As part of the extermination process, workers sometimes pass out plastic and duct tape to help seal off infestation points.

'Constant inspection'

Gerald Redmond believes he’s one of few residents launching a successful offensive against the invading bugs. Most folks have given up and accepted it, he said. Not Redmond.

“I'm going 15 rounds with all bugs,” Redmond said.

For that fight, Redmond, 63, has modified his whole lifestyle.

He doesn’t hang pictures on his walls or have any rugs. He keeps a cover on his mattress and his visitors to a minimum. Anyone who does come inside must drop their purses or backpacks in the blue plastic tub he keeps by the door.

Still, the bugs come.

“You’ve got to check,” he said. “Constant inspection.”

The fight against bedbugs is harder in apartments and multi-family housing, and especially low-income housing where populations are more fluid, said University of Kentucky entomologist and bedbug expert Michael Potter.

Potter said it’s not unusual for 5 to 10 percent of units in a complex to have bedbug issues periodically.

“If you’ve got 20 percent, 30 percent or more of those tenants all having issues and continuing to complain, something’s not working,” Potter said. “It sounds like they need to try a different tack.”

On an afternoon in May, Herbert Thomas, 73, sat outside while maintenance crews patched a hole in his apartment. That hole was one of many ways the “hitchhikers” are getting in.

Thomas has lived in Dosker Manor for 13 years, and he can’t imagine Dosker Manor without bedbugs anymore. Even when he thinks they’re gone, a hug, a guest or an ride in the elevator brings them back again.

“I don’t know how to explain to nobody that’s never had them,” Thomas said. “I thought everybody had them once in their lifetime.”

Reporter Jacob Ryan can be reached at  jryan@kycir.org and (502) 814.6559.

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.

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