Four months ago, Joseph Hernandez moved into The Landings apartments in North Raleigh off Six Forks Road. Ever since, his life has been one itchy nightmare.
His apartment is infested with bedbugs, a fact he did not learn until after he moved in, Hernandez says.
Apartment managers have sent in exterminators, who used chemicals so strong Hernandez got sick, he said. Managers also convinced him to throw out his couch and want him to get rid of his beloved recliner, he said. On Friday, his couch leaned against a trash bin in the apartment's parking lot.
But still, the bugs come out at night and bite him. His legs are covered with open sores.
So Hernandez called the Triangle Troubleshooter for help.
Hernandez also called the state Health Department, which sent Jung Kim, a bedbug specialist with the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources, to inspect his apartment. I met Kim there Friday. Before he went in, Kim tucked his jeans into his socks to keep the bugs from using him as transportation. He wore rubber gloves and slung a camera over his shoulder.
Bedbugs are causing big problems these days, infesting hotels and eventually hotel guests' homes. The bugs are especially problematic for multi-unit dwellings, Kim said, because they travel through walls to find more food sources. Hernandez says his neighbors also have them.
After about 15 minutes, Kim emerged from the apartment, confirming there's a "higher than moderate" bedbug infestation.
Kim had photographed black marks on the ceilings - bedbug fecal matter, he said.
Based on the amount of fecal matter, Kim surmises the apartment was already infested when Hernandez moved in. He also guessed there would be more fecal spots, except that the apartment had been painted.
Oftentimes, apartment complexes don't do the necessary bedbug treatment because it can cost between $800 and $1,500, Kim said. To really get rid of bedbugs, you need to do a one-two-punch of chemicals and heat treatment, he said.
Instead, people try to exterminate them with cheaper chemicals used for cockroaches and other insects. That just excites bedbugs, Kim said, and forces them up to the ceiling. But it doesn't do the job, he said.
Hernandez, who pays $545 for the two-bedroom unit, said the complex delayed his move-in date several times, telling him there was a cockroach infestation.
Hernandez, a Vietnam veteran who lives on disability payments, said he wants the landlord to move him to another apartment, replace his furniture and pay some damages. After all, he can't sleep, and his family has asked him not to come to their homes, fearing he will bring the bugs with him.
Kim and I went to the apartment leasing office after the inspection, and Kim tried to tell Susan MacNeilage, apartment manager, about Hernandez's bedbug infestation.
MacNeilage refused to let Kim finish and asked us to leave.
I then called The Landings' owner, California-based NALS Apartment Homes, which owns complexes in California, the Southwest, as well as Georgia and North Carolina.
At first, Heather Ross of the company's human resources department refused to give me the name of someone I could speak with. When I told her I'd include that in the column, she told me to call David Boire, who she said oversees The Landings.
Boire and I exchanged voice mail messages Friday. I called him three times Monday. He left a message at 9 p.m., saying "I'm sorry I've been so absent today" and suggested I call Kelly Hosch who works in their Marietta, Ga., property.
I left a message for her, but no luck.
So I moved on to the lawyers. First, I turned to Jack Holtzman, an attorney with the N.C. Justice Center, an advocacy group working on poverty issues. Among other topics, Holtzman deals with fair housing laws.
"A landlord has an obligation to maintain a healthy living condition, free of pests and varmints," Holtzman said. "It's not a matter of who created it. Once the landlord is made aware, he or she has an obligation to remedy the situation."
I then called Legal Aid, a statewide program that provides free legal services in civil matters to low-income people, and asked whether they would represent Hernandez.
Victor Boone, a senior managing attorney, said they've seen about a dozen cases like this in the past six months.
"It's a significant issue in Raleigh," he said. "Landlords take the position they didn't cause the problem, and tenants swear they didn't cause the problem."
But he agreed with Holtzman that it's ultimately the landlord's responsibility to get rid of the bugs.
And he's taking Hernandez's case.