clock menu more-arrow no yes
An alarmed woman cowers behind an armchair in her living room. The focal point of the image is a large rat standing on a full bowl of kibble in a dog dish. Illustration.

Filed under:

The choice between rent control and pest control

LA’s high housing costs are not just a financial burden—for me, they were also dangerous

The first time I saw a mouse in my apartment, I tweeted it. I caught the tiny creature in my dog’s food bowl, where it stood rigid, about as surprised to see me as I was to see it. I slid a plate over the top of the bowl and carried it outside, dumping the mouse and kibble into a dumpster behind my building. The photo on my timeline got a few likes and a couple shocked replies. Later, it became evidence.

For the past four years, I’ve lived in a rent-controlled, centrally located studio in a trendy Los Angeles neighborhood. It has hardwood flooring and an abundance of natural light, allows a dog of any size with no extra fees, and is in a walkable area where I can ditch my car on the weekends. At roughly 400 square feet, it’s cozy, but it’s perfect for a single, dog-loving, busy professional.

Well, almost.

Since moving into the apartment, I’ve been caught in an everlasting tag-team match with pests. When one pest is eradicated, another type moves in. First, I dealt with a fruit fly invasion. When I went to toss away an orange peel, I lifted the lid to my trash can and panicked upon finding hundreds of maggots feasting on my leftovers. I was so overwhelmed that I threw my expensive Simplehuman receptacle away. Then there was the more traumatic German cockroach infestation that lasted for months, an era I’m reminded of daily due to the permanent dusting of diatomaceous earth on my kitchen floor. I froze my compostables and limited waste to dry items and rinsed-clean food containers, yet the roaches still swarmed the floors at night, looking for crumbs. I had recurring nightmares where the roaches would blanket my ceiling and fall onto my body while I slept, and I would wake up gasping and swatting my legs. If there was one thing I learned, it’s that if you see just one pest, you likely have a larger-scale problem on your hands. The first mouse was an omen.

The mice plagued me for the next 16 months. The building manager, who lived down the hall, would send over his son to patch holes in my closet with steel wool. The landlord had a go-to exterminator who only laid down cruel glue traps behind my oven and refrigerator, even though I asked for a no-kill solution. The mice, stuck in mid-scamper, squealed helplessly for hours. When I had to get rid of them, I’d put on thick rubber gloves and a face mask and head to the dumpster, leaving them to starve, my stomach in knots.

After each round of maintenance and glue traps, the mice would retreat, and I’d tentatively relax. But after a week or two, I’d begin to hear rattling in my dog’s empty food bowl just before bed. The manager would find another hole, patch it up, and send the exterminator to lay more traps. My apartment permanently smelled like rodent droppings, and my dog, spotting the mice, would constantly launch off the furniture and slide into the walls, aiming for her prey. Once, she managed to reach a mouse stuck to a trap before I could get to it. I disposed of it weak with nausea.

The obvious solution was to move, but I couldn’t afford it. When I compare my current rent to the market at large, I find that it falls in the 10th percentile within my ZIP code, meaning 90 percent of the apartments available cost more than what I pay now. I already spend nearly half my paycheck on rent, and since moving into the building in 2015, my income declined because I switched careers. In the meantime, city-wide, rent has increased nearly 12 percent. Adding pressure is the fact that as of July 1, Los Angeles allows landlords to raise the price of rent-controlled units from 3 percent to 4 percent each year, which the city claims keeps pace with inflation. The city’s high housing costs are not just a financial burden—for me, they were also dangerous: I could not afford to extract myself from a health hazard.

I accepted that I had to downgrade my living situation, so I looked for apartments in less-expensive neighborhoods and even rooms to rent, but with Los Angeles’s housing crisis, anything that appeared pestless was just as expensive as where I already lived. Worse, nothing was rent controlled. My greatest fear was moving and seeing my rent spike a year later, forcing me to move yet again. As a person who craves stability, the anxiety of living liminally from one apartment to the next greatly outweighed my disgust for insects and vermin, so my choices were clear: rent control or pest control.

While I checked apartment listings, my pest problems persisted. I called the health department to investigate the mouse infestation, but the day before the inspectors came, the manager sent a cleaning crew into my unit to clear away the mice droppings. I learned that the tip-off was common practice, and I realized that the health department was more interested in helping my landlord avoid a fine than caring about my welfare. I sent photos of mice to the health inspector, including the first one of the mouse in my dog’s food bowl to show the longevity of the problem. She acknowledged I had mice at some point, but without fresh droppings, they could not confirm that the infestation was current.

Eventually, I found matted fur in the crevices of my oven and confirmed that the mice had declared the appliance home base. I got my landlord to replace it, and for once my apartment appeared pest free. But then I began waking up with red, itchy bumps on my back, arms, and legs: bed bugs.

I put my clothes in quarantine and frantically searched for the bed bugs, but my mattress and bed frame were clean. Twice, I demanded that the landlord’s exterminator turn my apartment inside out, but each time he found nothing. Even though my lease guaranteed that management would cover expenses for bed bug and rodent control, I offered to pay out of pocket to hire different inspectors. The landlord refused. I still contacted the highly recommended professionals, but they told me they couldn’t enter my unit without consent from the property owner. I was in bed bug purgatory.

One night, I finally caught a bug in action, sealed it in a Ziploc bag, and brought it to my preferred exterminators for certification. As the professional signed a form confirming bed bug identification, he told me to look behind picture frames. When I got home, I slowly lifted a framed poster that hung above my bed and screamed at the sight of the flat red insects branching across my wall as they scuttled from their shelter.

I suspected that my landlords wanted me to move out so they could reset my unit’s rent to the lucrative market rate. A new tenant would still be protected by rent control, but their starting price would be a few hundred dollars above my locked-in fees. I was a quiet tenant who always paid her rent on time, but I was easily replaceable.

But my landlord underestimated my tolerance for living in filth, and after the bed bug fumigation, the pests never came back. Still, the experiences haunt me. When I hear my chair squeak, I feel adrenaline kick in, as if I’m about to physically fight the next rodent that crosses my path. I may walk through my kitchen on edge, but at least I know I can afford to stay in my apartment for another couple of years—unless my building is sold, forcing eviction. I’m bracing for the next pest: California’s Ellis Act.

Renée Reizman lives in Los Angeles, where she is an interdisciplinary writer and artist at the crossroads of curation, social practice, and creative placemaking. Learn more about Renée and her dog on Twitter or at http://reneereizman.com.