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Tenants fighting back against Landlords and Property Management Companies in Grand Rapids

September 21, 2022

(Editor’s note: I work as a volunteer organizer with the Grand Rapids Area Tenant Union. The information included in this article is based upon concrete examples of tenants asking the Tenant Union for assistance to deal with exploitative landlords and Property Management Companies.)

Question, what happens when an apartment or an apartment complex becomes infested with bed bugs? Answer, more often than not in Michigan, tenants are 100% responsible for paying to have the bed bugs eradicated.

This is a harsh reality for hundreds of thousands of individuals and families who rent in Michigan. In fact, many landlords and Property Management Companies include, as part of their lease agreement, that tenants are responsible for covering the cost of eradicating bed bugs in their apartment.

Now, there are no concrete laws in Michigan that hold landlords and Property Management Companies responsible for the cost of bed bug infestation. The Michigan Tenant and Landlord Guide, has the following paragraph, which is rather vague language:

While current state law does not address bed bugs directly, there are a number of tools available to tenants with bed bug concerns. As discussed under Repair and Maintenance, a landowner has a statutory obligation under MCL 554.139 to repair defects about which he or she knows or should have known, but does not have a duty to regularly inspect the premises to search for defects. As such, a tenant who believes that bed bugs are present must notify the landlord that they believe a problem exists.

In October of 2021, there was proposed legislation that would regulate some of the issues around bed bugs. This piece of legislation, known as HB 5412, states that a landlord cannot enter into a lease agreement if they know that an apartment they are renting is already infested with bed bugs. To read the actual language of HB 5412, go to this link.

Based on how legislative politics works, it is highly unlikely that HB 5412 will be voted on before the November election. However, even after the upcoming election, it may never pass, precisely because the Rental Property Associations lobby is strong and makes significant campaign contributions to political candidates. 

But let’s say that the bill will pass next year, what are tenants to do in the mean time? This is an important question and the answer that the Grand Rapids Area Tenant Union gives to tenants who are dealing with bed bug infestation is this, “we can work with you to pressure the landlord/Property Management Company into incurring the cost of bed bug infestation and to put an end to this added burden on tenants.” In fact, any issue that tenants are faced with shouldn’t depend on what the law says, what what justice demands. For instance, Michigan does not rent control laws, so landlords/Property Management Companies can pretty much charge whatever they want for rent. However, that does mean that tenants have to just accept it. Tenant Unions all over the country have been organizing over the last decade to win rent control agreements from specific landlords/Property Management Companies, because those tenants got organized. For example, tenants in Oakland, California recently engaged in a rent strike and won. Not only did they win rent control, they actually were able to de-commodify their housing, where tenants are now in charge of making decisions about their housing.

Now, even if HB 5412 is voted on and passed in the Michigan House, it still does go far enough to prevent landlords/Property Management Companies from taking advantage of tenants. Many of the tenants that the Grand Rapids Area Tenant Union hears from, are people who are on a fixed income, often senior citizens, people with disabilities and those that are military veterans. Having to pay the cost of bed bug extermination is really not an option, plus there are numerous other costs involved when someone’s apartment becomes infested with bed bugs.

Besides the cost of extermination, tenants have to deal with:

  • The cost of deep cleaning or throwing away furniture and bedding that is infested.
  • Purchasing new furniture and bedding.
  • The psychological stress of living with bed bugs.
  • Loss of sleep, since many people will sleep in chairs or in their car…..if they have one.
  • The emotional cost of societal shame due to bed bug infestation.

This underscores the tactical and strategic difference from pursuing legal changes that would benefit tenants, as opposed to engaging in direct action, where tenants organize to make demands. 

In addition, since more and more of rental properties are owned by larger Housing Development Corporations and Property Management Companies, which have deep pockets, it is not unreasonable for them to incur the costs of extermination of bed bugs. One Property Management Company that the Grand Rapids Area Tenant Union is currently dealing with, regarding the bed bug issue, is KMG Prestige. KMG Prestige owns numerous rental properties in this area and in other communities. Interestingly enough, KMG Prestige applied for a PPP loan during the COVID pandemic and was given $7,845,514, which was forgiven. If a company that makes money from tenants can receive nearly $8 million of public money, they can surely incur the costs of exterminating bed bugs, especially for tenants who are financially struggling.

If you are a tenant or you know someone in the Grand Rapids area that is a tenant and is confronted with a landlord or Property Management Company that is charging too much rent, threatening eviction, not making repairs in a timely fashion or any other issue, please contact the Grand Rapids Area Tenant Union who will help you get organized to fight for housing justice. You can contact them via their Facebook page or send them an e-mail gratunion@gmail.com. 

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