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Operation Bedbug Attack

What's Being Done to Stop Portland's Tiniest Nuisance

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PORTLAND'S BEDBUG problem isn't as bad as New York City's. But talk to tenants forced to live in infested rental buildings—or housing providers desperate to evict the small, nocturnal bugs—and they'll say that distinction offers little solace.

Now public officials are stepping up to show the critters who's boss.

In what's being billed as the first step in a countywide strategy to curb the pests' spread, Multnomah County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury took charge last month and convened a wide-ranging meeting on the subject with housing providers, health experts, and City Commissioners Nick Fish and Randy Leonard.

Together, they began to map out a road forward: a public education campaign and a "summit" attended by every sector affected by bedbugs—including landlords and businesses, but also hotel owners, pest control experts, and housing providers. Also ahead, new building codes that would help spell out landlords' and tenants' rights and responsibilities when dealing with the problem.

It's going to take a shotgun approach to fix what's become an inexorable nuisance ["Bugged Out," Feature, Aug 12], Kafoury says: "This is not solvable with quick fixes."

Kafoury first wants to roll out an education campaign, hoping to increase community awareness about bedbugs and also tell people what to do if their residence is infested: how to kill the bugs, and how to prevent future infestations.

Margaret Mahoney, director of property for REACH Community Development, an affordable housing developer, says that would have an immediate impact. Because of rampant stereotypes and misinformation about bedbugs—that they are the result of poor hygiene or cleanliness, for example, or that tenants will be evicted if bedbugs are found in their residence—people "tend to panic, as opposed to understand what the bugs do, and what you have to do," Mahoney says.

Kafoury also wants to host her bedbug "summit" by this spring. The meeting would be an opportunity to share information about bedbugs, streamline effective strategies, and spread them around town. The goal is connecting groups who don't always talk to each other.

"We don't have enough information about what is going on in the rest of [those sectors]," says Cathey Briggs, the executive director of the affordable housing advocacy organization Oregon Opportunity Network, which sent a list of recommendations to Kafoury.

Kafoury, without specifying which groups, says some have already begun pointing fingers at one another, trying in vain to dispel the notion they have a bedbug problem. But, Kafoury says, cooperation among private interests will be key.

"We don't want it to be a government issue," Kafoury says. "It's not a government issue."

Kafoury also wants to establish a monitoring system to track the movement of bedbugs as much as possible, like a local version of the website bedbugregistry.com that tracks infested apartments nationwide.

She says it's likely that the Multnomah County Public Health Department will take the lead in dealing with bedbugs. But the county commission will need to give it that power: The department currently lacks the jurisdiction to dictate pest-control measures because bedbugs—unlike mosquitoes—are not considered a "vector" for the transmission of diseases.

"We're waiting for the lead from [Kafoury] and seeing where we can go from there," says Ben Duncan, a public health program development specialist and creator of an ad hoc bedbug taskforce. He gets about 10 to 15 calls a week about bedbugs. "Even though it's not a vector, it's become a public health issue."

Mahoney thinks the city and county should set aside funding for pest control in new affordable housing projects or for rehabbing older buildings. Pest control of bedbugs has proven costly, Mahoney says, and landlords would be more likely to treat their buildings if the costs were covered.

Having help from the city is one reason why Kafoury has reached out to Leonard, who controls Portland's building inspectors, and Fish, who runs the city's housing bureau.

Money will also be an issue, and Kafoury's office is currently exploring ways to fund the effort without affecting the cash-strapped services the city and county already provide.

"We think that everyone is going to have some responsibility for paying for this," says Liz Currie, Kafoury's policy advisor.

No one expects—or thinks it's possible—to eradicate bedbugs in the region. But officials think it's possible to keep their numbers "in check"—and stop them from spreading.

"If we can't eradicate them," Mahoney says, "we can get pretty close."

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