Hamilton

Hamilton tenant living with 'disgusting' bed bugs for months says city bylaw system not working

After living with bed bugs for months, Esther Stam says it isn’t only the persistent bites and sleepless nights that are 'horrendous' but also how difficult it is to get help.

City says it has addressed over 370 pest complaints since last August

woman sits on blue couch
Esther Stam has lived in the three-storey apartment building in downtown Hamilton for 13 years where she says there's now a persistant bed bug problem. (Samantha Beattie/CBC)

After living with bed bugs for months, Esther Stam says it's not only the persistent bites and sleepless nights that are "horrendous" but also how difficult it is to get help.

The Hamilton tenant has tried everything she can think of to rid her apartment on West Avenue of the tiny, "disgusting" pests she first noticed on Aug. 20, 2023, she said.

She said she notified her property manager at Blackbird Property Group right away, as recommended by the city, and provided photo and video evidence of the bugs and bites, according to emails seen by CBC Hamilton. 

She also has been in regular contact with a bylaw officer dedicated to pest control — hopeful he would compel her landlord to effectively treat not only her unit, but the entire three-storey building as she's heard other tenants were also impacted, she said.

As of this week, the bugs were still there, she said.

Stam's experience raises questions about how effective the city is at responding to tenant pest complaints and if landlords are being held accountable. 

Six months of emails and spray treatments

Throughout the fall, Stam said her living conditions and "mental anguish" felt unbearable, as the bed bugs multiplied by a "ridiculous" amount. Bed bugs crawled across her desk as she worked from home, and in her bathtub, she said. 

"We all just want to live in our beloved homes and have our property standards met," she wrote to the bylaw officer in an email Oct. 2.

She no longer had people over, avoided seeing family, and put her clothes on her balcony to keep them free of bed bugs, only to have them all stolen, Stam said. 

It took over three months for a pest control company hired by Blackbird Property Group to spray her apartment twice in November. 

Stam stayed with a friend for a couple of months following the treatments, and returned a few weeks ago. After her first night back, she said she woke up with three bed bug bites on her leg and is again trying to compel her landlord to spray the building.

"I am beside myself that the building infestation continues to grow," she wrote to the landlord on Jan. 23.

"Excuses aside, you still have not treated the building as you should, not once and it's about time you do because forcing people to live like this is beyond humane." 

Over a week later, and after CBC Hamilton contacted the landlord for the story, the property manager scheduled an inspection of Stam's unit on Thursday that confirmed there were bed bugs, Stam said. 

Landlord, city say they address complaints as quickly as possible

Landlords are required to keep buildings free of pests, including bed bugs, and pay for treatment, according to Hamilton's bylaw.

Under provincial legislation, they're required to keep buildings in a state of good repair and comply with health and safety standards. 

Oliver St. John owns the building and said he and the property manager "always act on every complaint" and he told CBC Hamilton that he doesn't believe that there is a bed bug infestation.

If Stam actually did have bed bugs in the fall, he said, it's because she brought them into her unit intentionally and then wouldn't let the pest control company enter her unit. Asked why she would do that, he said she's trying to get a "buy out" — money to leave — and doesn't actually live there anymore. 

Stam said none of St. John's allegations are true, the bed bugs infestation is real and she's definitely still living in the unit. 

apartment building
The city says it is once again enforcing its pest control bylaw to compel landlords to address infestations of cockroaches, rodents and bed bugs. (Samantha Beattie/CBC)

Stam's first call to the city was in late August, shortly after Hamilton re-started enforcing its pest control bylaw, which was paused for over three years due to the pandemic.

"The city is supposed to help you," said Stam. "These are laws. These are property standards [landlords] have to comply with. They have to be responsible and there has to be consequences." 

Bylaw officer closed case after giving 'verbal order'

One bylaw officer is assigned to pest control enforcement for the city's 860 apartment buildings.

If landlords aren't complying with the city's bylaw to keep units free of pests, the officer can issue written orders with deadlines for treatment, said Kevin McDonald, public health's director of healthy environments.

If the landlord doesn't follow through by that deadline, the city can hire a pest control company and then charge the expense to the landlord's property tax, which it has done four times since August, McDonald said. 

This approach was not taken in Stam's case. 

Instead, the officer gave a "verbal order" to the property manager on Sept. 15 and has since closed the case, McDonald said.

"Hamilton Public Health Services' priority is ensuring the appropriate treatment is performed in residences to eradicate any pests, as quickly and effectively as possible," McDonald said. "Pest complaints can take an extended period to be resolved, as pests can be resilient."

Since August, the city has addressed nearly 370 pest concerns, including closing cases once it's determined the landlord is complying with the bylaw. There's currently another 73 cases ongoing, McDonald said. 

The bylaw officer has the power to issue fines to landlords for not keeping their buildings free of pests, but that appears to have never happened. 

Tenant received demoviction notice in July

Before the property group had the unit sprayed in November, Stam spent hundreds of dollars to hire her own pest control company to spray her unit several times in August and September, and provided invoices to CBC Hamilton.

The treatment was ineffective because bed bug infestations continued in neighbouring units, she said. She sent the invoices to Blackblack Property Group, but has yet to be reimbursed, she said.

St. John told CBC Hamilton that Stam fabricated the receipts and the company she hired, Ontario Pest Control, doesn't exist. 

CBC Hamilton called the company that's a registered corporation in Ontario's business registry and spoke to Bob Rahim, who said he inspected Stam's apartment last summer, found bed bugs and sprayed her unit a couple times. 

Rahim said he's treated the building for bed bug and cockroach infestations several times before Blackbird Property Group took over management in 2018. 

"The building has always had issues," Rahim said.

CBC Hamilton also spoke to another tenant in the building who said they had bed bugs around the same time as Stam.

Jonathan Culp said after they reported bed bugs in their unit to the city in October, the property manager sprayed their unit, but they feared a building-wide infestation and moved out.

woman stands at balcony
Stam says she recently woke up with what appear to be bed bug bites and is hoping her landlord, property manager or city will take action. (Samantha Beattie/CBC)

Stam said she can't afford to move out. She pays just over $600 a month for the small, one-bedroom apartment she's lived in since 2013, which is well below current market rent. 

She fears her landlord is trying to force to her out by not taking her pest complaints seriously or responding to other maintenance issues.

Stam and other tenants received an N13 eviction notice last July, confirmed ACORN Hamilton, a tenant advocacy group, which Stam is a member. The notice said the building would be demolished. 

St. John told CBC Hamilton he has no plans to demolish the building, but rather wants to do repairs. 

The notices expired without St. John filing an application to the Landlord and Tenant Board so for now, the tenants don't face eviction. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Samantha Beattie is a reporter for CBC Hamilton. She has also worked for CBC Toronto and as a Senior Reporter at HuffPost Canada. Before that, she dived into local politics as a Toronto Star reporter covering city hall.

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