CONCORD -- Carmen LaRosa has replaced her mattress and couches three times to try to rid her one-bedroom apartment of bedbugs.
"With the new mattress, we had maybe a week of sleeping better before the bedbugs came back," said LaRosa, who tearfully described being bitten on her arms and back.
LaRosa, 51, is one of 21 tenants suing the owners of the 48-unit Rosemont Apartments on Monument Boulevard. In a lawsuit filed Wednesday in Contra Costa County Superior Court, tenants allege that the building is infested with bedbugs, roaches and rodents, and that the heating system, wiring and plumbing are defective. The lawsuit seeks monetary damages, an immediate fix for the bedbug problem and repairs.
Efforts to reach defendants Stuart Tunick, Brad Drian and Tamara Warren on Wednesday were unsuccessful.
Despite years of complaints, tenants say the landlords have ignored the bedbug problem and that the Concord code enforcement unit seems unwilling to issue citations or otherwise get involved. The lawsuit is a result of disagreement over who bears responsibility for eradicating the insects from rental properties and confusion about which government agency, if any, has enforcement authority.
Tenants Together, a statewide renters' rights organization, has been working with residents of several apartment buildings in the Monument area the group says are infested with bedbugs.
"State law is clear that it's the landlord's responsibility to take care of bedbugs," said Dean Preston, executive director of Tenants Together. "The issue at the city and the county is who is responsible for forcing the landlord to do it."
Bedbugs -- tiny, flat, reddish-brown insects that feed on human blood and usually bite at night -- have returned with a vengeance to Contra Costa County. Tanya Drlik, integrated pest management coordinator for the county, said she has received reports of bedbug infestations in Pittsburg, Antioch and Richmond.
Bedbugs live in upholstered furniture, mattresses and bedding; along baseboards and in cracks and crevices. Although the insects don't carry disease, their bites can cause itchy, red welts.
Bedbugs are difficult to get rid of because pesticides don't really work and because the insects move easily between apartments, Drlik said. Meticulously applied steam heat works best, and a professional should do the job, she added.
Although Tenants Together organizers believe landlords are responsible for handling bedbugs, Drlik said the situation isn't that clear-cut.
"Across the county people are trying to figure this out," she said. "San Francisco has an ordinance about bedbugs, but still it's not perfectly clear. They have tried to apportion the responsibility to landlords, tenants and pest control. All three need to work together to get a handle on the problem."
Formed in 2010, the Contra Costa Bed Bug Task Force produces fact sheets on a range of issues, including combating bedbugs, hiring a pest control company and controlling the insects in multifamily housing.
"One of the issues that we're working on is how can we work out this whole responsibility issue between city and county and landlords and tenants," Drlik added.
Concord police Sgt. Russ Norris, code enforcement supervisor, said the city recognizes that bedbugs are a problem but, at this point, its role is limited to connecting tenants and landlords with resources. The health and safety code indicates that defining vermin, substandard living conditions and who can act on it rests with the county, according to Norris.
"Specific to bedbugs, the only thing that determines whether a structure is substandard or not is if the county decides that bedbugs are a substandard condition. Then the city can act on it," Norris said. "We can't simply say the law is clear here."
Lisa P. White covers Martinez and Pleasant Hill. Contact her at 925-943-8011. Follow her at Twitter.com/lisa_p_white.
For more information about bedbugs, visit the Contra Costa Health Services website at www.cchealth.org/bedbugs, or call 888-959-9911.