OAKLAND -- One tenant had so many bedbugs she had to throw out her furniture and sleep on the plastic covering that came with her new mattress. Another had so many bites that teachers at her school thought she had chickenpox.
After months of trying to get their landlord and city officials to remedy the bedbug and mold infestation, nine tenants of a West Oakland apartment building asked a rent board hearing officer Monday to retroactively lower their rent.
The hearing, which was expected to continue Tuesday, involved the largest group of plaintiffs to come before Oakland's Rental Adjustment Board, tenants said. A ruling that could result in rents being cut in half is expected within a month.
The tenants of the Booker Emery Apartments at 715 Peralta St. said they are at the mercy of a landlord who has done little to exterminate the bloodsucking bugs or deal with other issues and has tried to evict those who complained.
While conditions remain poor, tenants said they could not afford to move out of the building, where studios and one-bedroom apartments rent for less than $700.
"If I leave, I won't be able to take my furniture with me," said Maggie Larios, whose bed and sofa are infested.
Yolanda Scoggins said the infestation in her apartment was so bad at one point, she started wearing a white shirt to bed so she could see the little red bugs that were crawling on her. "It's just so depressing," she said.
The tenants complaints are directed at Ramdas Darke, the longtime owner of the four-story building. However, last month a judge ruled that Darke was mentally unfit to operate the property. Members of his family say they are now dealing more proactively to exterminate the bedbugs and resolve other tenant concerns.
"We've tried to address the issues the best we can," said the owner's son, Ranjit Darke.
Bedbugs are an especially hardy pest whose numbers have soared over the past decade, according to the Alameda County Vector Control Services District.
Fifteen years ago, the agency received just one complaint about the bugs, which are roughly the size of a chili flake. Last year, there were 150 complaints -- 20 more than in 2012, said Dan Wilson's the agency's Community Relations Coordinator. The increase, he said, is believed to be connected to the trend against invasive chemical spraying for cockroaches, which also kills bedbugs.
Because the bugs can hide in walls for months they are especially costly to eradicate, Wilson said. Treating a 50-unit building such as the one in West Oakland could cost upward of $50,000 and require exterminators to perform multiple treatments, spraying pesticides into gaps that exist in the walls.
"If you really want to deal with the problem, it's best to address the entire building all at once," Wilson said. "You waste money chasing it back and forth from one apartment to another.
Vector Control received nine complaints about the apartment building last year and four the previous year, he said. Each time, the owner showed evidence that he had brought in a pest control service, and the complaint was closed out.
Vector Control can mandate property owners to address vermin issues, Wilson said, but it can't compel them to use the best exterminators or take the best approach to solve the problem.
Tenants said city code enforcers, who have the power to fine property owners, failed to come to their aid. City officials did not respond to interview requests Monday.
With their enforcement options limited, the tenants teamed up with the East Bay Solidarity Network and brought their complaints to the rent board.
They are hoping that a ruling in their favor will help tenants financially and force the owners to fully eradicate the problem.
"I hope it improves," Scoggins said. "Because I can't afford to move out."
Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6435