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Is landlord responsible for bedbug infestation?

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Question: I have lived in my apartment for just over three months, and I thought everything was going well until last week. That is when I started noticing itchy bumps on my body in the morning. When I showed them to my friend, he told me I had bedbugs.

When I contacted my manager and showed her the bites on my arms, she refused to accept responsibility and produced a "Bedbug Addendum" that I had signed as part of my lease. She said that this addendum completely waived my right to hold the management responsible for any bedbug problem. Then she said I would have to pay for professional extermination services.

Does this Bedbug Addendum relieve my landlord of all responsibility for my bedbug infestation? I have generally had a positive relationship with my on-site manager. She doesn't complain if I am a day late with rent and she previously arranged to have my leaking sink fixed. However, the bedbug bites combined with a huge potential extermination bill is really stressing me.

Answer: A landlord has a duty to provide habitable premises to all tenants. Under California Civil Code 1953, a tenant cannot be required to waive the landlord's duty of habitability, regardless of whether the purported waiver is incorporated in the rental agreement. California Civil Code section 1941.1 includes rental premises free from rodents and vermin within the landlord's duty of habitability. In our opinion, bedbugs fall squarely within the definition of vermin.

On the other hand, tenants also have duties, including the duty to report habitability problems promptly, so that bigger and more expensive problems can be avoided. The tenant also has a duty to avoid causing the habitability problem. Therefore if you brought the bedbugs into the unit or you noticed the infestation and delayed reporting it, you could be held responsible for the infestation.

You should read this addendum to your rental agreement very carefully. If the language purports to waive any of the duties imposed on the landlord under California law, it should not be enforceable. If the language merely reflects your legal responsibility and that of the landlord as outlined above, it cannot be used to assert a waiver of the landlord's duty to you.

Given your manager's response to your complaint, make sure you have stated your complaint in writing including a reference to the date you verbally notified her, to document that you met your duty of notice. In the same notification, request that the landlord honor its duty to promptly remedy the infestation. If the manager continues to refuse to honor her duty, contact your local fair housing or mediation program. You also can contact Project Sentinel at (888) 324-7468 or visit our website at http://www.housing.org.

Van Deursen is director of Dispute Resolution Programs for Project Sentinel, a Bay Area nonprofit. Send questions to info@housing.org.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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