Housing project's 'bedbug sauna' targets pests

Problem has grown in Portland in recent years

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PORTLAND — A new public housing complex for Portland residents who have been homeless has a "bedbug sauna" to prevent infestations of the pest.

It's a room the size of a closet that heats the possessions of all new residents to about 130 degrees for several hours to kill bedbugs.

The sauna has reduced outbreaks at Bud Clark Commons, a 130-unit complex operated by Home Forward, formerly the Housing Authority of Portland. But it's just a tiny victory in the city's continued battle against the rust-colored nuisance.

It's a battle being waged not just in apartments for the poor, but in homes, hotels and high-end condos.

"It's a huge problem," said Amanda Clark, a portfolio manager for Guardian Real Estate Services, one of the county's largest property-management companies.

"We spent close to $50,000 in a 12-month period for inspections and treatment in a 100-unit project that's all one-bedroom apartments in an urban setting," Clark told The Oregonian. "Fortunately, a company our size can afford that. But if you own a 24-unit building that's your sole source of income, you're going to be looking either at bankruptcy or simply not treating at all because you can't afford to."

Bedbugs first appeared in significant numbers here in 2008. The following year, elderly residents in downtown Portland high-rises starting seeing "an enormous outbreak of bedbugs," said Roger Moore, assistant director of property management for Home Forward.

Reports of new infestations continue, both in public and private accommodations.

"It remains a growing problem," said Steve Keifer, tourist facilities specialist for the Oregon Health Authority, which oversees licensing of the state's lodging facilities. "It may be due to better reporting, but there are more documented cases today than there were several years ago."

Combination of treatments

Pest-control operators recommend a combination of treatments that can include heating a unit high enough and long enough to kill adults and eggs; placing contaminated items in a freezer or, alternatively, washing and drying them; and applying bug-killing products.

A Multnomah County workgroup that's been mulling the bedbug problem for the past year said public education efforts, combined with early detection campaigns, have helped limit outbreaks in public-housing facilities.

The sauna at Bud Clark Commons in northwest Portland cost about $35,000, but has significantly reduced reports of outbreaks.

In southeast Portland, Officials at REACH Community Development say bedbug-related costs are about half of what they were before an aggressive tenant-education program that urged people not to share clothing and furniture and encouraged immediate reports of infestations.

"Early detection and quick action are what's important," said Margaret Mahoney, the agency's property management director. "We'll never completely get rid of these things, but we do think we can scale the problem way back."