Low-income residents battle bed bug infestation at local motel
For most of us, the saying “good night, sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite” is simply that—an age-old phrase meant to cue the REM cycle. But for others, including a group of nine Santa Cruz motel residents, it’s a nightly reality.
These nine renters reside on the right-hand side of Aqua Breeze Inn, formerly known as Sea Breeze Inn. Located directly across from the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, the motel is a popular tourist destination with a prime location and reasonable prices. But the inn also has an unresolved bed bug infestation problem.
When landowners Nila and Anil Naran, who have owned the property since 1996, reclaimed management on June 29 (after evicting former manager Bindu Gadani), they claimed to have been unaware of the problems afflicting renters in the 24 units on the right side of the motel. Since August 2005, the Narans leased the property to the Gadanis, who, according to both the nine renters interviewed and the landowners, allowed the motel to become rundown without pest control visits or regular maintenance.
“When you don’t own the business, you don’t have the right to interfere day to day,” says Nila Naran. “Because of that, we had no control of what was going on here; we just had to take over with the existing problems.”
Unfortunately for the Narans and the residents, those problems have multiplied to include bed bugs, cockroaches and poorly maintained rooms. In an effort to alleviate the infestation, the Narans requested that Ecolab Pest Elimination inspect the right side of the property on July 8.
“When we came in, there was no pest control and there were roaches and bugs in some of the rooms; Ecolab asked us for a list of rooms and he was supposed to spray for all pests, but mainly for roaches,” says Nila. Ecolab’s search for bed bugs turned up negative.
But of the 24 units on the right side—18 of which are occupied—GT spoke with nine residents, all of whom continue to be afflicted by bed bug bites. All nine are also low-income or sometimes homeless, and reported having no other place to go.
Having received bed bug complaints from two Aqua Breeze renters prior to Ecolab’s visit, the Environmental Health Department of Santa Cruz County investigated rooms 212 and 220 on July 9—after Ecolab’s treatment. Contrary to Ecolab’s findings, the department claims that “evidence of bed bug infestations were observed in the mattresses in each room,” according to Environmental Health Specialist Celia Brown, in the Order of Abatement Notice of Substandard Rental Housing issued to the Narans on July 14.
The notice claims that the two rooms violate the California Health and Safety Code as well as the Uniform Housing Code and that, as the property owners, the Narans have a “qualified option to vacate, repair, rehabilitate, or demolish this housing.” It also states that the Narans were responsible for correcting the deficiencies before Aug. 14, or else the violation is a misdemeanor and “punishable by a fine not exceeding $1,000, or by imprisonment not exceeding six months, or by both such fine and imprisonment.” But, according to Brown, Environmental Health’s jurisdiction over bed bugs in the county is limited and regulations are hard to enforce.
“There have been an increasing number of bed bug complaints since I started doing this in 2004,” says Brown. “Back then, I got one or two complaints, but I realized that I don’t have much authority.” While the State Health and Safety Code has provisions that allow her to enforce bed bug regulations—giving a courtesy call to the property owner, performing an inspection with an exterminator and setting up a deadline that can be extended if requested—neither the City nor County of Santa Cruz has passed ordinances to regulate hotels. Therefore, people who complain of bed bugs in locations where they have not established residency are relatively helpless.
But those victims are ranting all over the Internet. There are four bed bug complaints about Aqua Breeze on Trip Advisor, two of which were written by visitors who cite that they stayed on the left side of the motel, which has a reputation as being “the good side” for tourists. However, due to the fact that the Narans changed the inn’s name from “Sea Breeze” to “Aqua Breeze” in June, the establishment is now disassociated from many of its negative reviews and is no longer searchable on the online Bed Bug Registry.
David Dejesus and four-year renter Manuel Arrujo Jr. of room 212 are two residents who continue to receive bed bug bites, even after exterminators have come. “I kept telling the previous manager that I was being bitten, so they gave me some spray, but it didn’t do anything,” says Arrujo, who took his daughter to a doctor when she visited and was repeatedly bitten. “I told the new management and they had someone spray, but the bed bugs are still here.”
One of the treatment complications is that bed bugs do not simply infiltrate mattresses. Once they have entered a building, they can get carried different places when people leave their luggage, clothing, furniture and bedding in their room. While the bugs do not carry diseases, they do leave bites that can lead to other infections if scratched a lot.
“They’re in the wood and the furniture,” says monthly resident Ella Mae Wise, who has been seen for her bites by doctors at the Homeless Persons Health Project. “The bugs are hard to find, but I see them every once in a while.” Wise’s neighbor Pat Holland has collected some of the bed bugs she found in her room to show exterminators.
Treating a bed bug infestation is an extensive process for renters. According to the Director’s Rules and Regulations for How to Control Bed Bug Infestation issued by the City and County of San Francisco’s Department of Public Health, in addition to having the exterminator come, residents with bed bugs are advised to seal all of their clothing and bedding in plastic bags and wash them at the hottest setting. The report also warns to not return the clean clothing or bedding to the room until after the treatment is finished and to repeat the process each time the exterminator visits.
Multiple trips to the Laundromat and/or professional cleaners do not come cheap, and are especially troublesome for the largely low-income renters at Aqua Breeze. Each of the monthly residents pays between $650 and $1100 per month to stay at the inn. For some, that money comes from Families in Transition vouchers (rental assistance for parents and their children who are homeless or on the brink of homelessness). “People keep saying, ‘Bonnie, why are you [staying] there?’—but it’s the only place we can afford,” says off-and-on renter Bonnie Dunn. “We get the place for a couple of days, then we’re back on the street, then we come back for a few days.”
But Dunn and her neighbors at Aqua Breeze are running out of time and options. As of July 13, the Narans have handed out eviction notices to all 18 of the occupied long-term units in the hopes that they can remodel in October. While some of the residents have 90 days to vacate, others have as few as 30, depending on how long they have lived there. Regardless of when their time is up, nine of the monthly residents are currently without a place to relocate and will bear with the bed bug bites until they are forced to leave.
As of press time, the Aqua Breeze Inn had not been successfully treated for bed bugs and the Narans had missed the Aug. 14 date for compliance. They would not comment on whether they would treat the infestation before the tenants vacate in October, when the owners have plans to remodel and, perhaps, start fresh.