When bedbugs infect a building, who’s responsible for cleaning up the problem?

The city of Honolulu has paid an exterminator $17,372 to eradicate bedbug infestations at two city-owned affordable housing complexes.

Residents at Pauahi Hale and Winston Hale in Chinatown are glad that the problem has been treated, but they say poor building management allowed the infestation to develop in the first place — and that the city should make the property manager foot the bill.

Lynn Ditchens, 60, has lived in Pauahi Hale since December 2010. “I found out about bedbugs from the first week that I moved in,” Ditchens said.

“I’m on a fixed income and I spend anywhere from $150 to $200 on boric acid and spray,” she said. “We call it ‘the walls move, the floors move.’ They’re infecting the hallways, our restrooms, even our kitchen, our common area.”

Hawaiian Properties, which manages both buildings for the city, says it acted as soon as it heard about the problem.

“We don’t agree with the complaint that it’s been two years that we’ve had bedbugs. That’s not true,” said Richard Char, one of Hawaiian Properties’ government housing managers. “We take bedbugs very seriously. As soon as we identify them, we try to get it treated.”

The bedbug situation underscores ongoing problems between building management and residents, who pay about $300 a month per room in the dormitory style buildings.

Residents say building managers were slow to respond to early bedbug reports, allowing the problem to spiral out of control.

The latest infestation was brought to the city’s attention in October, emails show. But treatments didn’t take place until earlier this month — nearly three months later.

Faith Action for Community Equity, a faith-based group, helped tenants like Ditchens advocate for themselves.

“We’ve been talking about this since October,” said Micki Fine, a FACE tenant organizer. “So when (the city) said they were going to take care of it, I expected them to take care of it that next week. I wasn’t expecting them to wait until after Christmas, and after New Year’s.”

For its part, city housing officials said in emails to FACE that it acted as quickly as city processes allowed.

But that’s been little comfort for some residents.

Jun Yang, another FACE organizer, said one Winston Hale resident had been temporarily laid off by a local hospital because bedbugs had been discovered on her clothes at work.

At one point, in November, the city wanted to get an idea of how widespread the problem was and asked FACE to help spread the word that residents with bedbugs could come forward to management.

But records show that Hawaiian Properties turned around and issued two violation notices to one resident who came forward.

Char, with Hawaiian Properties, acknowledged the violation notices, but said there were no fines attached.

He said the company normally holds individual tenants who brought the bedbugs into a building responsible for cleanup costs, per the state landlord-tenant code.

An email from Layne Owen, a Hawaiian Properties employee and a manager at Pauahi Hale, to a city housing official reads:

“The Resident Manager and I have been working with Apts. 203 & 204 to remove the bed bugs from their units. Unfortunately, due to their poor house keeping habits, lack of personal hygiene, mental and physical health issues as well as lack of financially (sic) income, Apts. 203 & 204 are having a hard time removing the bed bugs from their unit.”

The city defended Hawaiian Properties’ management, saying that bedbugs are a common problem in 5-star hotels as well as in low-income buildings and that prevention is up to the individual tenants.

Ditchens says she’s tried to talk to her neighbors — who have bedbugs crawling out of their rooms — about cleanliness.

“It doesn’t work,” she said. “I bring it to (management’s) attention. It’s up to them.”

One of her neighbors moved out rather than pay a $2,500 bedbug eradication bill management presented him with, she said.

The city determined that 35 out of 77 units in Pauahi Hale were affected and treated those. In Winston Hale, 13 units were affected.

But even the city suspects the problem could return.

City housing officials declined to talk to Civil Beat about the issue. But city spokesman Jesse Broder Van Dyke said in an email: “Even with the treatment, we can only guarantee that the units will be free of bedbugs on the day of treatment.”

For her part, Ditchens has built a trough of boric acid in front of her doorway to keep bedbugs from crawling in from the hallway.

“Everyday I come home, this is what I have to do: I have to take off my shoes and .. make sure I make sure I don’t have anything attached before I walk into my room,” she said.

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