A growing epidemic of bed bug infestations has left the city of Boston struggling to keep its own housing units pest-free and respond to complaints in private units.
“They bite you on your face. They bite you on your neck. They bite you on your back. Your hands. Your arms,” said Takisha Coles, who has been living with bed bugs in her Roxbury apartment for four years.
The bugs have forced the family to abandon one of the floors of the apartment and cram onto couches and beds to sleep.
She lives at the privately-owned New Academy Estates, where she says years of insecticide treatments haven’t worked. Now she believes the bugs are entering her apartment from other infested units.
“Four years living like this. Scared. They are in your dreams after awhile. Even if they are not there. It is a mental thing for me. Just to hear my kids say mommy, they are biting me,” said Coles. “I'm mentally losing it.”
Records obtained by FOX Undercover show she’s not alone.
Neighborhoods all over the city have been inundated with infestations, records show. The city has received 1,443 complaints in the past five years, and the number of complaints has grown, from 245 five years ago to 380 now.
“We are seeing an increase in the city of Boston. They are very difficult to find and very difficult to eliminate,” said Dion Irish, an assistant commissioner with Boston’s Inspectional Services Department.
After complaints are filed, landlords must come up with plans to get rid of the pests.
“If we don't get a response from the property owner in the time allotted, our next step is to initiate a prosecution to the Boston Housing Court,” Irish said.
The records show ISD regularly takes landlords to court, including the Boston Housing Authority.
“The Boston Housing Authority is the city’s biggest landlord but they get treated no differently than any other landlord. We expect that a pest-free environment is provided to residents,” Irish said.
FOX Undercover reporter Mike Beaudet asked Lydia Agro, a spokeswoman for the city’s housing authority, about the court complaints.
“It seems a little embarrassing the city having to take its own housing authority to court?” Beaudet asked.
“The housing authority and ISD have a very good working relationship,” Agro replied.
Agro says the housing authority takes bed bug complaints seriously, blaming the court action on a communication breakdown between the housing authority and inspectional services.
“We have 10,000 units in the city. We have hundred of bed bug complaints. We have hundreds and hundreds of complaints on other issues and managers are managing multiple buildings at the same time,” Agro said.
Even when landlords take immediate action, it's not easy to get rid of bed bugs.
“We have found them in cars, we have found them in ambulances, we have found them in hospitals, movie theaters. They've been found in airplanes. Wherever people go, that's where you can find bed bugs,” said Rich Stevenson, vice president of Modern Pest Services, who is also a member of the bed bug task force run by the National Pest Control Management Association.
“Five-star hotels in Massachusetts have seen bed bugs?” Beaudet asked.
“Oh absolutely. Without a doubt,” Stevenson said.
Jonathan Boyar of Ecologic Entomology, a pest control service, said, ”It doesn't matter if you are wealthy, if you're on a limited income or what your life style is, they don't discriminate. For them blood is blood. Anybody can bring them in and like we said, it's just bad luck.”
That bad luck is still haunting Takisha Coles.
“Where do I go? What do I do?” she asked. “I can't afford to move out. I can't afford to keep them in a hotel. Who do I call when management shuts the door on you. And that's basically what they say. It's expensive to spray. And they've treated my unit several times. That's the best they can offer me.”
Since FOX Undercover interviewed Takisha Coles, her landlord has given her apartment two heat treatments. This week, she's moving into another unit that's supposedly free of bed bugs.
Bed bugs are not just an issue in Boston. It's a growing problem everywhere, and experts aren't exactly sure why. One theory that we're not using the same harsh insecticides we once did. And that could be making it easier for bed bugs to not only survive, but thrive.