NYC’s bed bug math problem

Note: Click here for an update on the most recent New York City bed bug statistics.

This is how New York City’s bed bug statistics have appeared in recent press articles:

Daily News, Douglas Feiden, December 30, 2007:

In the fiscal year that ended in June, 6,889 infestation complaints were logged and 2,008 building owners were hit with summonses.


Those travel patterns [bed bugs hitchhiking on clothing, etc.] account for the 1,708 verified bedbug cases in 277 public housing projects this year, the city Housing Authority says. The Department of Education has documented another 74 cases, spread across 50 schools.

Washington Post, David Segal, February 26, 2008:

In New York, the city housing authority has fielded and checked out more than 2,500 bedbug complaints in the past three years; fewer than 500 turned out to be actual infestations. Even allowing for some overlap — two calls about the same bugs, for instance — that’s as many as two or three callers who don’t have bedbugs for each caller who does.

Columbia Spectator, Dino Grandoni, March 5, 2008:

Seth Donlin, press secretary for New York’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, said the city received 1,729 bedbug complaints and issued 437 violations to landlords in the last fiscal year.

Emphasis added.

So, is it just us or are there fundamental errors above?

We spoke to HPD’s Seth Donlin today.

The Fiscal Year 2007 (July 1, 2006 – June 30, 2007) numbers are as follows:


1,729 complaints and 437 violations


1,117 complaints and 347 violations


2,382 complaints and 692 violations


1,602 complaints and 514 violations

Staten Island:

59 complaints and 18 violations

Grand 5-borough total:

6,889 complaints and 2,008 violations

You can send a thank you note, or a fruit basket, to Douglas Feiden if you are so inclined.

We have great ambition but few resources, so we’re giving the Columbia Spectator a pass and calling Grandoni’s citing Manhattan statistics as city statistics an honest mistake.

And the Washington Post? No, they’re decidedly not getting a pass. We have a call into New York City Housing Authority spokesman Howard Marder.

We’ll continue this tomorrow.

But first we’ll note something that the author of the Washington Post article, David Segal, said in an interview about his story.

I mean, the problem with this story has always been that the stats on it are incredibly squishy.

Indeed, David. David Segal is based in New York.

You can read Bedbugger’s reaction to Segal’s interview here.


  1. persona-non-bugga

    Hey, nice work getting these figures.

    Just to clarify – is this the tally of complaints called in by private tenants – as opposed to residents of public housing who have their own system for addressing grievances?

    I’m struck by the ratio of violations to complaints. I wonder what those numbers mean. I imagine that some folks might complain of bedbugs and not actually have them. But I’m skeptical that the modest percentage of complaints that resulted in violations means that most of the complaints were made in error.

    Is it that people complain but then miss the appointment with the housing inspector? Do the complainants have second thoughts? No inspection means no violation regardless.

    Does the inspector have to find a bedbug during the inspection to issue a violation? What’s the standard of necessary evidence? Are inspectors trained on how to conduct a search?

    Do some complaints never get a visit from an inspector? Sorry, city agencies. I hafta wonder, considering current news about the crane accident and the inspection that was filed as completed but never properly performed.

    In any case, I hope when people cite these figures, they keep in mind that, for so many reasons, many – if not most – people with bedbugs in NYC don’t file a complaint in the first place.

  2. Renee

    Yes, persona, the numbers we confirmed with HPD are for 311 complaints and the ensuing violations. Who calls 311 to complain about bed bugs? Residential tenants who have uncooperative landlords. And pretty much only such tenants.

    I know you already know this, but it really works like this: if your landlord is taking care of the bed bug infestation in your apartment or building, or if they are not but you are afraid of complaining for fear of retaliation or a bad reference, or if you own your home, or if you are a business, or a television studio, or a law firm, you don’t call 311!

    Public housing residents don’t call 311 either. They call their building or complex management, or a centralized NYCHA call center.

    I feel very strongly that, flawed as they are, it’s important to make sure the statistics are cited correctly and then it’s important to make sure that what they actually measure–and what they don’t–is understood.

    We’ll work on this in the coming days. I hope we can illuminate some of your questions.

    But first we need to get to the bottom of the Washington Post’s strange numbers. I am not sure it’s too much to ask that the Washington Post understand the difference between the NYCHA and HPD.

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  5. mangy

    I heard recently that if you call 311 and they send someone out to verify whether or not you have bed bugs, they don’t count your situation as a verified infestation unless they find a live bug while they’re in your domicile. It doesn’t matter if you present them with evidence in the form of fecal matter, blood spots or bites. I’m wondering if you even present them with bed bugs you caught yourself, if they would accept that as evidence. I don’t really know. Who can we call to find out? It might be useful information in our estimates of actual statistics.

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  7. Gail

    I wonder if you asked them to have a seat and have some coffee and they got bit,would that be verification,if they didn’t actually see the bug? I would bet that would be considered proof.What needs to happen is these inspectors need to carry flushing agents with them and start spraying around the bed and I’ll just bet the verifiaction goes up a LOT.I still don’t understand why pco’s don’t use them more? I’ve used them and let me tell you they do work at getting these bugs to move.It doesn’t take a lot of spray either,so the cost should be minimal,and it beats the heck out of trying to outstealth them.

  8. Renee

    Hi Gail!

    I have not seen the use of flushing agents recommended for inspection procedures in the available literature. We have some good links to the Australian CoP and Dr. Kells’ recommendations for PCOs. In addition, of course, bedbugger has a treasure of additional links.

    I think there may be a concern with dispersing bedbugs, but this is a question for a PCO; maybe someone in the bedbugger forums can illuminate this issue.

    With regard to HPD inspectors, I’m not sure this is feasible, even if it were recommended (and I don’t know whether it is), because only licensed applicators or technicians can use pesticides in someone’s home.

    I think it’s more feasible to expect and ask that HPD inspectors be thoroughly trained in bedbug inspection techniques; an inspection for bedbugs is a time-consuming, detailed affair, as described and recommended in the best sources we have available.

    If inspectors have a “live, crawling bedbugs observed” standard (as mangy indicates in the comment above) but do not have the appropriate inspection training, we’re in trouble, as I’m sure is evident to everyone.

  9. Doug Summers MS

    The inspectors should utilize K9s if HPD is going to require the confirmation of live uncontained bed bug specimens during the inspection.

    Light infestations of bed bugs are very difficult to confirm with a brief visual inspection. This may be a major reason why the HPD statistics are so skewed with regard to confirmed infestations.

    The K9′s will quickly pay for themselves in reduced labor cost & the public interest will be much better served with brief, but accurate inspections to confirm the 311 complaints.

  10. Renee

    Hey Doug, I think that’s certainly an idea. And there’s no question in my mind that the gap between complaints and violations is due in large part to the training and skills of inspectors and their evidence standards.

    To be frank, New York vs Bed Bugs has so far hesitated to adopt a position on bedbug dogs. In general we think they are promising tools, very promising. But, as bedbug dogs have become more popular, we’ve also started to hear troubling reports of widely varying results, even to the point of all clears one day and various alerts on another day. Perhaps such results are not the rule and, in any case, much may depend on the training depth and working methods of each individual handler/dog team.

  11. Doug Summers MS

    Bed Bug Dog alerts should be confirmed with a visual inspection. We teach our K9 teams to perform a manual search in the location of the dog alert.

    Most problems with a K9 team can be traced to the skill of the handler & the quality of the daily training practices.

    Some K9s are advertised to identify live bed bugs only. In theory, these dogs are trained to ignore feces, cast skins & dead specimens. There can be a number of inherent problems with this live specimen only training approach. False alerts are one possible result.

    K9 teams are not 100% accurate. In the lab setting the stats range from 75% to 96% depending on which studies you cite.

    Accuracy rates can vary considerably between individual K9 teams.

    The Bed Bug Dog is the best bed bug surveillance & detection tool on the market, but these dogs are not a panacea. The K9 assisted bed bug inspection is more accurate than a brief visual inspection by an unassisted human inspector.

    If HPD is going to require their inspectors to find live bed bugs in the field & base their statistics on a brief visual inspection, then it only make sense to utilize K9 teams for the investigations.

    Keep in mind that my opinion is highly biased due to my work. I work for Florida Canine Academy & handle K9s for a living. We pioneered the use of K9s for bed bug detection.

  12. Renee

    I appreciate the comment, Doug, and the upfront disclosure.

    I am a bit worried to be honest, although it’s certainly possible that I’m simply focusing on a small number of reports.

    And I have to agree that a human confirmation of the presence of bedbugs should follow a dog alert and any pest control decisions taken as a result of dog alerts should be weighed very carefully if there is no such confirmation.

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  17. Dawn Bryant

    Consumers need to visit the websites of the bedbug sniffing dog companies. It is always stated that “knowledge is power”. Being cognizant of your subject can minimize the amount of wrong information we congest from sources that are pacifying our fears. Our decisions follow the education process. I started a bedbug dog sniffing company after finding that it was a solution to my problem as a shelter administrator. The shelter is now bedbug free after the dog identified exactly where they were. We were paying pest control on a bi-weekly basis, yet, every week I had a new bedbug complaint. Thanks Doug and the Florida Canine Academy.

  18. Renee

    I’m glad the dogs worked for you, Dawn, and that the shelter is bedbug-free.

    Since you posted a second comment about dogs, I’ll just add my own view of the dogs: I think the dog has to be highly trained and the dog handler needs to be highly trained and they need to work well together (and this combination is by no means common). And I think a human inspector should confirm the presence of bedbugs where possible.

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