Investigations

The Louisville Metro Housing Authority board chair says there’s little the agency can do to combat an infestation of bedbugs at Dosker Manor, because residents refuse to cooperate.

Jacob Ryan | wfpl.org

Board of Commissioners Chair Manfred Reid listens during a June 19, 2018 meeting of the Louisville Metro Housing Authority.

Manfred Reid, an 11-term member and current chair of the housing authority’s board of commissioners, said the issue is residents who lack the discipline needed to effectively eradicate the bugs and refuse to let workers into their apartments.

“The only thing that keeps us from being able to control this is the behavior of the residents,” Reid said.

But data shows that residents in nearly half of the almost 700 units have complained about bedbugs in the high-rises in recent years, and many have complained multiple times. Residents at Dosker Manor, housing for the elderly and disabled, sharply refute the assertion that the infestation is theirs to fix. And housing authority staff say they can enter units when needed.

Reid and other housing authority officials discussed the infestation of bedbugs at their regular board meeting Tuesday afternoon. The meeting came two weeks after the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting published an examination of the housing authority’s failed system for bedbug extermination.

That report found the housing authority’s system for exterminating bedbugs isn’t working. Thousands of bedbug related complaints have been submitted by residents since 2016 and nearly each complaint has been closed. But the bugs continue to infest rooms, halls and elevators, residents say.

Michael Potter, an entomologist at the University of Kentucky and bedbug expert, said ridding complexes of infestations would be tough without cooperation from residents. But to uniformly blame the tenants is an “imprudent way to deal with the problem,” he said.

“Oftentimes it becomes a convenience scapegoat to blame the tenants,” he said. “A lot of times, tenants are preparing and doing the things they should be doing, but the issue still resides with the people who are trying to get rid of the bugs.”

But Reid, the board chair and himself a resident of Beecher Terrace public housing, said there’s not much more the agency can do. He said a committee of board members will review the housing authority’s policies, but he doesn’t foresee any new resources to help combat the infestation.

Supplying mattresses to residents is too costly, he said. Inspecting their belongings before they move in is too invasive. He said crews could use stronger chemicals, but then there are health concerns to worry about.

Really, Reid said he just wants people to cooperate, which he claims isn’t happening now.

“We did not bring the bedbugs in there, the residents brought them in there,” he said. “If they gave us their cooperation, they wouldn’t be there.”

Mayor Greg Fischer’s spokeswoman Jean Porter said in a statement that Fischer agrees there is a need for improvement in the maintenance process — and that he has confidence in LMHA and Reid to see it through.

“Mr. Reid’s point, at the board meeting, is that the maintenance process is one that requires cooperation between LMHA’s maintenance team and their residents,” Porter said. “Most importantly, the maintenance team needs access to units in order to make an inspection. As a property manager, LMHA relies on that cooperation to make sure that their units are safe, secure and up to code.”

But housing authority crews have the right to enter individual units with proper notice, according to Ucrecia Sistrunk, regional director at Louisville Metro Housing Authority. Refusing to cooperate with that order would result in violation of residents’ lease, she said.

Cooperation ‘A Two-Way Street’

The day after the housing authority’s board meeting, a group of residents were gathered in the shade near the entrance to a Dosker Manor tower. They blasted Reid’s assertion that residents need to do more to curtail the bedbug infestation.

Herbert Thomas said residents’ extermination efforts are often thwarted by the cyclical nature of a bedbug infestation: spraying one room pushes the bugs to the next, and before long, they’re back again.

“Cooperation is a two-way street,” said Thomas, who said he lets workers in to deal with his bedbug outbreak.

Jim Owens said the widespread nature of the infestation at Dosker Manor means even the cleanest and most vigilant residents are not safe from the bugs.

“They crawl through electrical outlets,” he said. “Ain’t a whole lot you can do about that.”

Housing authority crews conduct quarterly inspections of residential units. And housing authority exterminators are dispatched when a resident complains of bedbugs. Reid said the agency does “everything that’s required of us and more” to eradicate bedbug infestations at Dosker Manor.

But KyCIR found that doesn’t always happen. Some complaints were never entered into the work order system.

The six-member extermination team, which Reid said is adequately staffed, relies on chemicals to eradicate bugs. No other tools are used, like traps or heat chambers, which experts say are vital elements of a comprehensive integrated pest management plan.

In fact, Louisville Metro Housing Authority has no formal integrated pest management plan, according to Lisa Osanka, the authority’s interim director. Public housing agencies are “strongly encouraged” to adopt such plans, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Officials Examining Process

Osanka said she is working with housing authority officials to “draft best practices regarding the prevention and control of pest infestations.”

And Osanka said officials with the city’s Codes and Regulations department are examining the issue, but she provided no details to what that review entails. Will Ford, spokesman for the city’s codes and regulations department, said the agencies are having “conversations” about “process improvement,” but he also provided no details.

Currently, code enforcement officers don’t enforce the city’s property maintenance code at public housing complexes, according to department policy.

A spokesman for the Jefferson County Attorney’s office has not responded to a request made three weeks ago seeking clarity on whether code enforcement officers should be responsible for public housing.

Metro Councilwoman Barbara Sexton Smith, who represents the downtown area, said learning of the infestation “troubled” her.

“We need an immediate, intense focus on resolving the current infestation issues at Dosker Manor,” she said. “No one should accept this.”

She’s yet to draft any legislation that would help remedy the infestation, but said she would “explore the possibilities” of calling housing authority officials before the council for a formal hearing.

Sexton Smith said the housing authority “is the responsible party” as it stands today.

Osanka says the problem is nuanced. Resident cooperation is one factor, she said, but not the only factor. The agency is examining the work order system and hopes to develop better procedures for addressing complaints.

But asked if she believed Dosker Manor was infested, she wouldn’t say.

“That depends on what you mean by infested.”

Jacob Ryan is a reporter for the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.