“You know I had more than this,” Hasan Ubabweque says as he opens the door to his East Village apartment. “I’ve been here for 37 years.”
The living room, freshly painted white, is almost empty, except for one chair, a music stand, and a black canvas laid across the floor covered with papers and Ubabweque’s prize possession, a Selmer Mark VI tenor saxophone. There’s a black air mattress in the bedroom.
Ubabweque, a 79-year-old jazz musician born in Harlem as Wilbert Perry, grew up on the Lower East Side. He dropped out of the Juilliard School of Music in the late 1950s because the school thought jazz wasn’t valid music, and served in the Army in the South when movie theaters were still segregated. He put his saxophone “under the bed for 20 years” while he was married and raising children. He moved back to the East Village in 1980, after his divorce. Now, he lives on Social Security and plays small club gigs.
He says that when his apartment had a bad bedbug infestation exterminated last September, his landlord threw out the rest of his possessions.
“Everything I had bagged up to be saved, they had thrown it all out,” he says. About 100 books. His records of Dexter Gordon, Thelonious Monk, and John Coltrane. His laptop computer, which he’d put in a Tupperware container. His air-conditioner, left in the street. A camera and typewriter. A leather jacket he got on tour in Rome, and an African robe he’d worn for a bit part in a movie. And “all my papers,” he says.
“Everything, brother,” he adds. “I don’t have anything.”
Ubabweque’s landlord, Robert Perl, denies his account. “A lot of this stuff was thrown out with his knowledge,” he says, and it included “nothing of great value.”
Perl, who bought his first East Village building in 1988, has been called the “counterculture landlord,” because he’s been a significant contributor to the Howl Festival and has lamented that the neighborhood has lost its “wild and vibrant” side. On the other hand, more than tripling the rents on vacant apartments, whether from $465 to $1,500 in 1991 or from $800 to $2,900 in 2016, is not exactly a way to preserve a neighborhood as a haven for artists and oddballs.
“The day of the removal, Mr. Perry was present,” says property manager Alexandra Martinez, using Ubabweque’s legal name. “He agreed that the books would have to go.” He also “indicated what was OK and what was not OK” to be removed, she adds.
The extermination process took more than a week, they say, during which they paid to wash Ubabweque’s clothes, and put him up in a vacant apartment in the building, while also repairing the cracks in the walls of his apartment. “I don’t think there’s many landlords who’d take good care of him,” says Perl.
Ubabweque says he agreed that his furniture was too infested to keep, and that his loft bed had to be torn down. (Photos supplied by Perl’s office show the wood pockmarked with bug stains.) He says he was told to put what he wanted to save in bags and leave them in the kitchen. He stayed with a friend for the three days of the initial extermination. When he came back, the bags were gone, he says.
“How does he think can do this to a person and just walk away?” he asks. “He knows I’m living on Social Security and can’t recover.”
Bedbugs, Cimex lectularius, have returned dramatically to New York City in the last 20 years. Complaints to 311 about them doubled between 2006 and 2010. That number has since leveled off. “People know who to call now, and only call 311 if the landlord is not doing anything about it,” says Jeffrey Eisenberg of Pest Away Exterminating, author of The Bed Bug Survival Guide. “Landlords don’t ignore it the way they used to, because they know the legal ramifications and the way it spreads.” Timothy Wong, technical director at M&M Pest Control in Chinatown, says calls to his company for bedbug extermination have increased by more than 75 percent over the last three years.
Bedbugs are attracted to humans by body heat and carbon-dioxide exhalations, and are nourished by sucking their blood. But many people don’t notice an infestation because they don’t react to being bitten, says entomologist Mike Merchant of Texas A&M University. It normally takes about two months for an infestation to reach 100 bugs, he adds.
They’re particularly insidious, says Louis Sorkin of the American Museum of Natural History, because they’re too little — adults are smaller than apple seeds — for many people to notice them, they can survive for months without eating, and “not one thing works 100 percent” to eliminate them.
Bedbugs had largely disappeared from the city by the end of World War II, but returned 25 to 30 years ago, most likely brought by travelers, Sorkin says. Reasons they spread include the fact that people didn’t “think bedbugs” back then and didn’t take precautions; that they used bait traps to kill cockroaches instead of spraying insecticide; and that bedbugs are often immune to insecticides such as DDT, the neonicotinoids, and the more naturally derived pyrethrins. Tenants were often scared to complain about them, and a lot of landlords did inadequate “low-end” exterminations.
All this has created a nightmare for both landlords and tenants. Landlords are required to abate bedbugs within 30 days to keep an apartment legally habitable. The burden of preparing the apartment for extermination is on the tenant. But the law “doesn’t give any guidelines,” says Wong.
Housing lawyers say there are two common problems. First, preparing the apartment is difficult for tenants, especially the poor and elderly. They have to get their clothes and bedding cleaned, clear space by the walls for the exterminator to have access, and decide what they have to throw out and what they want to save.
A common case, says Justin LaMort, an attorney representing tenants for MFY Legal Services, which provides free legal services to low-income New Yorkers, is a senior citizen who’s accumulated “a lifetime of possessions” and can’t do the preparations alone, or fast enough to meet the landlord’s timeline. Alexandra Martinez says Ubabweque filled only two or three plastic bags before the deadline, so people from the landlord’s office came to help him.
Legally, LaMort says, landlords don’t have the right to throw out tenants’ possessions, but it’s a “pretty common fact pattern.”
One of his clients, he says, was a 90-year-old Upper West Side man who did not want to be identified. The landlord went to court to get emergency access to his apartment, “threw out all his possessions,” and then sued him for $150,000 in legal fees and damages.
“The landlord can’t come in without your consent and throw out your things,” Carlene Jadesingh, an attorney who’s represented both owners and tenants, says. “That’s illegal.” The tenant’s verbal consent, she believes, is not a strong enough standard.
“If I were a landlord seeking to destroy property like that, I would definitely try to seek written consent,” says Stephanie Rudolph, a lawyer with the Urban Justice Center. But generally, she adds, tenants understand that they have to get rid of contaminated mattresses.
There are “very few options for these people,” says LaMort. If they can’t afford to hire someone to help, the city’s Adult Protective Services agency will — but they’ll throw stuff out.
Second, landlords don’t want to put a lot of money into helping rent-stabilized tenants stay in their apartments—and often exploit an infestation to get them out, directly or indirectly. On the other hand, they also don’t want the bedbugs to spread to their high-rent apartments.
“How hard are they trying to make the removal inconvenient for the tenant?” Wong asks. He says he sees it “all the time.”
Ubabweque’s rent is between $700 and $800 a month, according to Perl, with about half paid by Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption subsidies. After the extermination, Perl offered to buy Ubabweque a house in Detroit if he’d move. Market-rate one-bedroom apartments in the East Village building go for close to $3,000.
“There’s so much bedbug hysteria I can see how a landlord could be overzealous about trying to get rid of as much stuff as possible,” says Rudolph. “Especially if you’re hoping that a rent-stabilized tenant will move out.”
At 410 Eastern Parkway, a 1920s-vintage building on the grand boulevard of Brooklyn’s Crown Heights section, tenants are facing both chronic bedbug problems and the landlord’s “construction as harassment” tactics.
When G-Way Management took over three years ago, they “began the process of trying to get rid of the rent-stabilized tenants, especially the old Caribbean tenants,” says Laura Matson, who lives on the sixth floor. There was demolition work going on last Christmas Eve, and the heat and hot water go out “on a weekly basis,” she says.
“I’m finding bedbugs on a daily basis,” Matson says. She emails a photo of one crawling on her freshly-cleaned cat food dish. She’s had them for about two years, after her elderly downstairs neighbor was evicted and her infested apartment was gutted. The bugs got into the walls, she says, the landlord “refused to treat the adjacent apartments,” and the infestation has spread down to the third floor.
In mid-February, Cobblestone, the new property manager, temporarily placed Matson and her fiancé in the now-renovated downstairs apartment, so they could seal up the cracks and holes in her floor and walls. The job was supposed to take five days, she says, but they were still there two weeks later. Meanwhile, the company said they could keep that apartment for about $800 more than they now pay—or get $20,000 to move out.
According to city Department of Housing Preservation and Development records, the number of violations in the building increased from 23 in 2013 to 175 in 2015, the year G-Way head officer Rachel Phipps made Public Advocate Letitia James’s 100 Worst Landlords list. It currently has 155 outstanding.
Arden Corbett, a nurse who lives in the building, has had problems with bedbugs since last spring. The prep work and extermination were “incredibly expensive” and “super-disruptive”; she had to send all her clothes and bedding to the cleaners, and spend two weeks with her kitchen full of plastic bags.
In January, she called the management office to say she still had bedbugs, and that it was “pointless” to treat individual apartments if there was a problem in the whole building. When a new tenant, a woman with an 18-month-old son, moved in on the third floor, she says, G-Way put a rider on her lease stating there was “no history of bedbugs in the building.” The baby got bitten so badly, Corbett adds, “his eyes were swollen shut.”
“If this is not an active plan to drive people out of their apartments,” Corbett says, “it’s something they’re saying ‘if that’s an added benefit, so be it.’”
G-Way and Cobblestone did not respond to voicemail messages.
The most common way bedbugs spread is by scuttling through hallways or crawling through openings, such as cracks in the walls, electrical outlets, and baseboards around the radiators. Exterminators recommend treating buildings in a “cloverleaf” pattern—doing the apartments above, below, and on both sides of the infested one, plus the one across the hall. At the very least, they should “minimally inspect” those apartments, says Jeffrey Eisenberg.
Many landlords are reluctant to do that. Eric Britt, a 26-year-old electronica singer-songwriter, and his husband have been living with the results for almost three years.
They moved into 2007 Foster Ave. in Flatbush in January 2014, a few months after they started dating. They were paying $2,100—which they now believe is illegally high—much more than the longtime tenants. Their landlord, Isaac Schwartz, is ranked #13 on James’ 2016 list of the city’s worst.
Britt and his husband didn’t react to being bitten, but noticed spots on their mattress that summer. When they looked more closely, he says, “We found about 20 bedbugs throughout the night, crawling on our bed.”
They have had eight separate treatments, Britt says. Other apartments in the building have also had bedbugs, but “all of the exterminators who come have told me that they were told explicitly to not inspect or treat adjacent units,” or even to drill into the wall and dispense powder to get bugs there.
After the third attempt, says Britt, the landlord refused to do more than send the same company, Squash Exterminating. Meanwhile, the couple has been fighting his lawsuit to evict them for withholding rent after their ceiling collapsed and they went without gas for seven weeks in early 2014. A Housing Court judge refused to order that the adjacent apartments be treated, says Jeffrey McAdams, the couple’s lawyer.
Squash Exterminating manager Mac Weinies declined to comment. Schwartz’s lawyer did not return phone calls.
They would have moved out, Britt adds, but they’re almost certainly on the blacklist of tenants who’ve appeared in Housing Court. They’ve run up around $25,000 in legal fees.
“Now we’re just self-treating and living out of bags,” he says. “We keep clothes in separate rooms. We’re careful about moving from bed to couch.”
Wong, the owner of M&M Pest Control, says “most stuff can be treated if you use the proper procedures.” Furniture is the biggest exception. For example, loft beds have to be torn down “if bedbugs are in the structure.”
The most common method of extermination he said is “purely using pesticide — it’s a cheap alternative, but by itself, it’s not very effective.”
Freezing and heat are more effective. Bedbugs can’t survive above 122°F, although this is also hot enough to damage the glue in book bindings. Books can be wiped down with a damp cloth. Cryonite, dry carbon dioxide, can be sprayed into appliances, where it freezes bugs on contact.
Some exterminators put Nuvan pesticide-release strips into plastic bags, but Wong says that’s dangerous if the bag’s not airtight. The most effective treatment, he says, is putting everything in the apartment in a sealed truck and fumigating it with Vikane.
“As far as I’m concerned, nothing ever has to be thrown out,” says Eisenberg. The only obstacle is cost.
Vikane fumigation costs at least $1,000. He’s not a big Cryonite fan. It has to hit bedbugs directly to kill them, and doesn’t get the eggs. A greener way to attack them is “detailed vacuuming” or steaming out cracks and crevices, “honing in on the bedbugs.”
For books, he recommends either heating them or leaving them in bags with Nuvan sticks for eight or nine months.
There are a lot of fly-by-night extermination companies, he warns. For $250 to $350, you’re probably getting “the spray guy with the can.” “If you’re spending less than 600 bucks, you’re not getting a real company,” he adds.
Wong recommends checking that the exterminator has “an actual address” and not just a phone number or Web site.
The bedbug battle between Hasan Ubabweque and his landlord is a microcosm of the East Village’s social conflicts of the last generation. Ubabweque is a type common in the neighborhood before gentrification: someone obsessed enough to devote their life to their art without ever making much money at it. He says the high point of his career was playing in Italy with bebop pianist Barry Harris.
He has filed a grand larceny complaint with the Ninth Precinct over his missing possessions, and threatened to sue Perl. “If this is not harassment, what is?” he asks.
“If I was going to harass him, I would have done it years ago,” Perl responds. “I get it. He has no money, and I’m a good mark.”
Ubabweque plays a voicemail recording of Martinez, the property manager, promising to replace his loft bed. “You just have to be patient with us,” she says. “Don’t worry about the loft.”
As of early March, that hadn’t happened yet.