Bedbugs lead St. Louis senior housing complex to try to evict 87-year-old tenan

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ST. LOUIS • Ida Lester, 87, a resident at the House at Westminster Place senior apartments in the Central West End is facing eviction over the tiniest and peskiest of issues currently plaguing homes for the elderly: bedbugs.

She’s lived in her apartment for about a decade. Prior to that she lived down the street in an apartment in the same mixed-income housing complex originally constructed by McCormack Baron Salazar nearly three decades ago. It was constructed with the help of a package of federal low-interest grants and tax credits so middle- and working-class residents could live together.

Her son Theoda Lester said she’s never had a lot of money, but she’s been happy living there in affordable housing. It’s a pretty block with lots of trees and well-kept buildings, with shopping nearby at Lindell Plaza.

Every month since Ida Lester lived in the low-income senior apartments she has paid her rent — now through auto-pay directly out of the same account that receives her Social Security benefit. Her current rent is $594 a month, court records show.

But if her new landlord has its way, she will be thrown out of her home.

In its court complaint, Broad Management Group is asking Lester to pay double the rent and double their claim of an estimated $368 in damages. Records show House at Westminster Place was sold by McCormack Baron last June to Broad Management Group, a real estate investment and management firm based outside of New York City.

In a brief filed to the court, Lester’s attorney said the facility demanded $800 to exterminate the bedbugs, which demonstrated a breach of an “implied warranty of habitability” on the part of the landlord.

According to Lester’s son, problems started in December when bedbugs were discovered in numerous apartments on the first floor of the senior apartment building. The owners of the complex paid to have a heat treatment done by exterminators to the affected apartments and areas, he said.

Theoda Lester said the first treatment didn’t get rid of all of the bedbugs in his mother’s apartment. The complex management then told the residents they would have to pay for a second visit by exterminators. Theoda Lester said his mother was told it would cost her $800.

The son said the exterminators showed up at her apartment unannounced in late February, and his mother refused to let them in because she did not have the money to pay for it.

Now, House at Westminster Place is moving to formally evict Ida Lester.

Growing problem

Bedbug infestations are increasingly common in facilities for the elderly.

According to recent statistics gathered by the pest control industry, nearly 60 percent of exterminators have found bedbugs in nursing homes — up from 43 percent two years earlier.

The health vulnerability of nursing home, assisted living and senior living residents makes pest control more difficult because these facilities typically shy away from using chemical pesticides. Senior homes are also problematic because many personal effects, such as photographs and photo albums as well as furniture brought into the building, can harbor bedbugs.

But advocates for those in affordable housing and senior housing say eviction should not be the final resort when it involves something as difficult to control as bedbugs.

‘She wants to stay’

Ida Lester was told in March that she needed to vacate her small apartment, not long after her son said he complained to the local alderman and a ward committeeman.

Lester, now partly blind and dependent on a walker, hasn’t budged. A court hearing is set for May 4.

Supporters, including the Organization for Black Struggle, said her treatment was unfair and she was being scapegoated as a cause of the bedbugs, even though they were found in multiple places in the building.

Kathryn Davis, a lawyer from the firm representing the complex in the eviction case, said she would not get into details on a pending case.

“We do feel the landlord is trying to act in the best interest of all the tenants,” she said.

Amy Diemer, managing attorney at St. Francis Catholic Legal Assistance ministry, said a volunteer attorney at her group is representing Lester.

“It’s our position and our client’s position that she is not the source of the bedbugs and should not have to be paying for the treatment,” Diemer said.

Federal housing laws do allow landlords who accept government subsidies for affordable housing to ask for extermination costs when the tenants are found to be the direct cause. But there are typically contingency and maintenance funds to be used by senior complexes when tenants don’t have the money.

Lester’s son said his mother is not a hoarder bringing in bedbugs. The complex has given him no proof that she caused the problem, he said, and his mother does not want to move.

“This is where she wants to stay. She doesn’t want to go anywhere else,” he said. “There are a number of people who’ve lived there who’ve passed away. Like my mom, this is where they wanted to finish out their days.”

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