Although landlords in New York State are generally required to eradicate bedbugs, these pests exist in a legal gray area—making it trickier to deal with infested rental units.
New York state law doesn’t expressly mention bedbugs. It does require that landlords keep their rental units habitable, though, and past court cases demonstrate that judges consider bedbug infestations a threat to habitability. Determining whether or not an infestation is a good reason to terminate a tenancy is more complicated, however. New York City also has its own laws about bedbugs, which are a lot more clear-cut.
Bed bug infestations are not explicitly covered by New York law
New York State laws don’t explicitly discuss bed bugs. The closest they come is N.Y. Real. Prop. § 235-b, which requires landlords to keep their rentals “fit for human habitation” and ensure that tenants “shall not be subjected to any conditions which would be dangerous, hazardous or detrimental to their life, health or safety.”1 This is also the law that creates New York’s implied warranty of habitability—basically, a guarantee that landlords will keep their rental properties in livable condition throughout a tenancy.
Since the law doesn’t contain an exact list of issues that would be considered a breach of the warranty, we have to look to past court cases. In reference to bedbugs specifically, one New York court wrote “[i]t has been well established that insect infestation is a condition which is considered to adversely impact upon the health and safety of the occupants of a residential premises”—meaning that infestations are covered under the statute.2 As a result, New York tenants can potentially employ the remedies traditionally associated with breaches of the warranty to deal with bedbugs: repair and deduct, rent withholding, and even constructive eviction.
Bed bug infestations can be a reason for constructive eviction
A tenant may be able to leave their apartment and terminate their lease—a process known as “constructive eviction”—if their landlord won’t fix a serious issue that’s making the property unlivable. In one such case, a New York court determined that a tenant had been constructively evicted when a bedbug infestation spread to his unit from the next-door apartment.3 Bugs appeared in the renter’s bedroom, living room, dining room, bathroom, and closets. The renter notified his landlord soon after noticing the infestation. Although the landlord hired an exterminator, he wasn’t successful in eliminating the bedbugs, and the tenant abandoned his rental. In the court’s decision, they emphasized the tenant’s lack of control over the neighboring apartment, where the infestation originated.
Court rulings on bedbugs can be unpredictable, however
Another, similar, case had the opposite outcome. A tenant in New York informed his landlord that he’d found two bugs in his rental, at which point the landlord hired an exterminator. The tenant continued to find blood stains and bed bug larvae on his sheets, at which point he moved out and claimed constructive eviction. The court ended up ruling against him, calling the infestation just an “annoyance” and ordering the renter to pay all outstanding back rent.4
Both cases happened in the same jurisdiction, but the courts focused on different factors—in the first case, they focused on the tenant’s quick response and the origin of the infestation in another apartment; in the second, they paid more attention to the extent of the infestation. As Samuel R. Gilbert notes in a review of bedbug-related rental laws, the “contrast between the two cases illustrates the unpredictability of applying the constructive eviction doctrine, even in the same jurisdiction. Without a firm rule, courts are free to weigh the various factors as they see fit, and landlords and tenants are left with little guidance in ordering their affairs to avoid liability for infestations.”5
It’s difficult to determine fault in a bedbug infestation
Like most states, New York’s warranty of habitability doesn’t apply to issues caused by the renter themselves (or their pets or guests).6 Landlords are not on the hook for repairing a window that a tenant accidentally smashed during a party, for instance. But it can be difficult to figure out who caused a bedbug infestation—and even if a tenant did introduce bedbugs into their apartment, it’s almost guaranteed that they didn’t intend to do so.
In New York, the courts have acknowledged this difficulty. As one decision notes, “[t]here is nothing in the record to suggest that any deliberate or intentional act was done by [the tenants] which led to the presence of bedbugs…or even that [the tenants] were negligent in any manner. It appears that any individual venturing out into the world today, particularly an individual that travels, risks bringing bedbugs back home.”7 This stands in contrast to many other states, which continue to use fault as a key issue in deciding who is responsible for paying for treatment.
Tenants with disabilities can request specific bedbug treatments
Typically, tenants don’t have any say over what treatments a landlord uses to exterminate bedbugs in their unit. If a tenant refuses to allow a landlord to treat the extermination, they lose the right to use tenant remedies such as repair and deduct or constructive eviction.
The only exception is for tenants with disabilities. Under fair housing laws, these renters are entitled to reasonable accommodations that take into account their disability. In one relevant case, a New York court ordered the landlord to accommodate a tenant’s lung condition (she had been diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis) by using non-chemical treatments.8 If those measures didn’t work, the landlord was responsible for relocating the tenant while he used chemical treatments.
But a tenant’s condition must be considered a disability under New York law for fair housing laws to apply—a tenant with cancer wasn’t allowed to request a more expensive heat treatment method.9