By Jill Colvin
MANHATTAN — Bed bug experts are warning New Yorkers to brace for an infestation explosion come summertime.
While winters are usually quiet, this past season exterminators say they've been working overtime.
"I think you're going to see a tremendous increase," said Jeffrey Eisenberg, founder of Manhattan-based extermination company Pest Away and author of "The Bed Bug Survival Guide." He estimated he'd treated 20 to 40 percent more bed bug cases this winter than last.
According to city numbers, 311 complaints about bed bugs in Manhattan have skyrocketed in recent years, with just 103 complaints in 2003 versus 2,553 in 2009 — an increase of more than 2,000 percent. And while the number of complaints appears to be leveling off, there were still 2,649 complaints in 2010 — about 4 percent more than the year before.
Violations issued by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, which follows up on all 311 bed bug-related calls, have also been steadily rising, from just 17 in 2004 to 717 in 2009. The number of complaints have stayed relatively consistent over the past couple of years, but violations continue to increase, with 846 issued last year.
Certain neighborhoods are also much harder hit than others. While just a single complaint was logged with 311 from Downtown's Community District One through the first three months of this year, Upper Manhattan's Community District 12 logged a skin-crawling 101.
In general, Northern Manhattan neighborhoods fare worse than others, with frequent complaints in Central Harlem, which had 87 complaints, and West Harlem with 30 violations through the end of March. The city's West Side, stretching from Chelsea through West Harlem, has also been hard-hit, with 48 complaints in Community District 4 and 42 on the Upper West Side — more than Midtown, Murray Hill and the Upper East Side combined.
But those in the business say that complaint numbers really don't tell the story because the way New Yorkers deal with bed bugs has changed.
Most people don't call 311 when they suspect bed bugs, turning instead to their landlords or professionals for help. A call to 311 generally implies that a landlord hasn't addressed a problem, HPD spokesman Eric Bederman said.
But thanks to greater education, landlords are being more proactive instead of resisting the problem and letting it get out of hand.
"Manhattan property owners are way ahead of the game than I think anybody nationally," said George Shea, a partner of Bed Bug Super Dogs.
The disparity between calls to 311 and calls to exterminators is especially prevalent on the Upper East Side, where exterminators say they receive a great number of calls but residents appear to infrequently call to complain to 311.
On the other hand, those in lower-income neighborhoods may be more likely to reach out the city, not because they are more likely to get bed bugs, but because they can't drop hundreds of dollars to hire pricey private exterminators or because landlords may be less willing to deal with the problem or know what to do.
"Bed bugs are not a socioeconomic problem," Eisenberg said. "Socioeconomics comes into play once you have a problem and you can't afford to get rid of it."
The nature of infestations has also changed.
Bed bugs are now much more common in commercial spaces and office buildings, said Shea.
"There has definitely been an uptick in concerns from commercial offices," he said.
But, experts say that the bugs can still strike anywhere and urge residents to be vigilant as the weather warms.
"There's going to be a rude awakening," Eisenberg said.