Dan Hinkel (Chicago Tribune)
Waukegan’s public housing agency faces a federal class-action lawsuit alleging that officials took ineffective action against a burgeoning bedbug infestation in a housing project.
The suit filed by three residents of Harry Poe Manor claims the 155-unit tower still harbors the bloodsucking insects whose bites, often delivered while people sleep, can irritate and inflame skin. The suit filed Friday in Chicago federal court seeks class-action status to represent the building’s current residents and those who have lived there during the alleged infestation.
The suit seeks an injunction that would force the Waukegan Housing Authority to disclose the extent of any infestation and make a new plan to kill the bugs. The litigation also asks for monetary damages for, among other things, pain and suffering.
“It’s very uncomfortable,” said Amy Strege, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys. “I think anyone who’s ever had a mosquito bite understands that’s annoying, and if you had thirty of those on your legs in a line every day for two years.”
Waukegan Housing Authority Executive Director Charles Chambers could not be reached for comment after the suit was filed Friday afternoon.
The suit says housing authority officials hired exterminators to use chemicals in apartments after residents complained of bugs in the downtown Waukegan high-rise. Public records show that housing officials have known of the problem since at least January 2011, Strege said.
However, the suit alleges, the building managers failed to heed federal recommendations and did not set up an “integrated pest management plan,” a holistic approach that involves educating residents and can include fixes such as sealing cracks through which the bugs travel and enforcing rules that keep discarded furniture crawling with bugs from re-entering the building.
Building officials failed to warn residents and prospective residents about the bugs as the infestation spread to 80 apartments as of this summer, according to the lawsuit filed by Timothy Phillips, Gilberto Colon and John Stewart.
Residents, meanwhile, often woke up to see the bugs’ straight-line pattern of bites, the attorneys said. Colon reported seeing a woman riding a building elevator with a bug crawling on her, his attorneys said.
Pest control experts who have studied the recent bedbug resurgence said a holistic approach is key to squashing an infestation in an apartment building or project.
“If they’re just doing it piecemeal, apartment by apartment, then they’re never going to get rid of the problem,” said Louis Sorkin, an entomologist and consultant in New York.
Residents of an infested building need to be educated on how to recognize bedbugs and then how to prevent their spread. They need to be told, for example, to avoid hauling in infested furniture found at the curb.
“These bugs are hitchhikers, and so the occupants of that residence are going to have these bugs, say, tucked in the treads of their shoes,” said Susan Jones, an entomology professor at Ohio State University.
“And so you spread bugs all over.”