Lifestyle

My rental from hell and the financial toll of bed bugs

By: Sinead Mulhern on March 26, 2019

It’s 2012 and my apartment is in chaos. The picture frames look like they’ve been shaken off the walls by an earthquake and the cushions of our ugly, third-hand couch are strewn on the floor. My books sit in a pathetic pile after I’ve meticulously searched through their pages. My floor rug, blankets, sweaters, curtains and throws sit in single file ready to go off to the dump. The pieces of my precious wardrobe now live in a sad collection of garbage bags after many episodes of infinite spinning in the dryer. I’m supposed to be studying or writing a paper. Instead, my roommate and I are preparing our apartment for its appointment with the bed bug exterminator. This is our second or third appointment. Tomorrow after class, we’ll come home to the musty, chemical haze that hangs over our living room like a toxic storm cloud. Our floors will be covered with a thin grimy layer of powder that’s supposed to kill these horrible little pests, but instead, just sticks to our feet. Jaded, we’ve already started looking for another place to live because both of us know that this extermination isn’t going to work. Bed bugs are resilient little creatures. They could probably survive a nuclear blast.

***

I was 21 years old back then. I had a lot of bites on my thighs, arms and head. I also had a heck of a lot of bitterness — bitterness that both my roommate and I were slowly losing our minds thanks to our bed bug (and cockroach) infestation from hell. By then we’d realized just how naive we were to move into our Sherbourne and Wellesley apartment in downtown Toronto. We signed the lease because it was close to Ryerson University and because at $650 each, it was the only available place that we could afford.

It’s ironic that money was our primary concern and yet, the address that we chose ended up taking such a financial toll. Neglecting to thoroughly research whether or not your home is at risk of bed bugs (hint: there’s a registry out there) will cost you. Your cheaper rent won’t make up all the money you will spend trying to eradicate bed bugs.   

I had a lot of bites on my thighs, arms and head. I also had a heck of a lot of bitterness

We heard warnings not to rent in that neighbourhood — St. Jamestown — and certainly not to move into one of the old high rises on one North America’s most densely-populated blocks. Did we listen? We sure didn’t. The white walls and shining floors we saw on the day we viewed the apartment were merely a glossy coat hiding the abominations that lurked in nearby crevices. Deciding to move in took a great financial toll on me. In fact, it was one of the worst money mistakes I made while living in the city.

***

Thanks to the disgraceful state of many of the city’s rental apartments, I’m one of thousands of Torontonians who actually paid for the experience of living in a space that made my existence itchy, polka-dotted and miserable. The Toronto bed bug registry has 2,270 reports of problematic addresses and at least a few times a year, local media is flooded with reports that, in essence, confirm what a lot of the city’s dwellers already know: Toronto’s bed bug colony is alive and thriving. Media tell the tragic tales of senior citizens, pregnant couples and broke-ass students being attacked by these menacing critters during their sleep in what was supposed to be home sweet home. Make no mistake: bed bugs may be absolutely tiny, but their physical size is no indicator of the damage they can do to your bank account.

While my roommate and I were able to find a place to live elsewhere, that’s not an option for others in St. Jamestown and similar neighbourhoods, where many residents live below the poverty line. They experience the financial drain of remedying the problem even more-so than we did. And that’s why it’s important to talk about the devastating financial toll of bed bugs.

***

Our “extermination” back in 2012 didn’t work.

As mentioned, I moved into that apartment mainly because of money and the fact that I didn’t have a lot of it. During that second year of university, my bookshelf was made of empty beer bottles and stolen bricks (trashy, but functional), I bought all my clothes from a second-hand shop where nothing cost more than $10 (read: I looked like a 1970s armchair all year) and, I’m half-embarrassed to admit that in search of free entertainment, my roommate and I snuck into hotel pools... on more than one occasion. I say all of this to make clear that I was not someone who was going to up my rent budget. That came to bite me in the ass. Literally.

While my roommate and I were lucky to be able to find a place to live elsewhere, that’s not an option for others in St. Jamestown and similar neighbourhoods

The financial toll that comes with trying (and failing) to control an infestation, especially one as resilient as bed bugs, can be so incredibly damaging. Mine is one of Toronto’s 2,270 bed bug reports and I wrote it out of frustration, because I wanted future tenants that had the privilege of choice to understand that the rent money saved is not worth it. A snippet of what I wrote outlined the ways that I was impacted financially: “I have lost so much money from all the dryer bills from trying to get rid of bugs. Myself and my roommate are both throwing out mattresses, clothes, rugs, blankets, pillows and our couch (all of which we will have to replace),” I wrote. “Living here has been a nightmare and a huge regret.”

The rent money that I paid was money down the drain, because we were paying to live in a place that came with none of the comforts that a home should have. I outfitted my mattress with squeaky rubber sheets designed for bed wetters. Half-asleep, I’d wake with a jolt feeling a tickle on my arm just to discover that it was my own strands of hair. I’d avoid my bed or have trouble getting to sleep. I’d vacuum like a mad woman and then lie in bed for twenty minutes trying to lure the bugs out of their hiding place so I could trap one in tupperware to prove my tale and spur the building’s management into action (this never worked). Once, my pre-date routine involved applying cover-up to a bite on my cheek, keeping my fingers crossed that he wouldn’t notice it and that if he did, he’d think it was just a breakout. (A stand-out and disgusting low point of that period.) It was horrifying and absolutely revolting. We tried everything: extermination treatments and every home remedy in the book. Nothing worked.

I have lost so much money from all the dryer bills from trying to get rid of bugs. Myself and my roommate are both throwing out mattresses, clothes, rugs, blankets, pillows and our couch

The reports to management didn’t exactly go well. On our umpteenth conversation about the issue, Janet from management dared to suggest that a TTC-savvy bed bug must have jumped off one of the seats and sneakily hid itself between the pages of my magazine. Then, once inside my shoddy apartment, the city-slicker of a stowaway put in action its master plan and laid eggs all over my living quarters. When she said as much, I asked her if the cockroaches arrived in the exact same fashion and if maybe the building was just 100% infested instead and she was now trying to convince me otherwise. The next time, I had a meltdown and unleashed my inner dragon. In an act of rebellion, we stopped paying rent on time and threw the eviction warnings in the garbage with the rest of our bug-ridden stuff. Then we left.

During that period, I wasted money on rent and on trying to remedy an unfixable problem. When all was said and done, I’m not sure how much money we really saved by living there and in any case, it wasn’t worth it. Seven years later, Toronto is dealing with the same problem and so I rehash frustrating memories of being 21 and leaking money from my pockets because of a rental situation gone wrong. I do this in an effort to emphasize the importance of doing adequate research before renting in a city where this is a widespread problem. And by raising awareness that this is something that needs more attention. I was lucky enough that for me, this is a bad memory. For a lot of others, bed bugs are sucking the financial resources out of them every day.
 

Illustration by Taryn Gee

 

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