Denise Cordoba, a tenant at the Richmond Housing Authority’s Hacienda Apartments and President of the Tenants Council, shows a recently caught bedbug
Denise Cordoba, a tenant at the Richmond Housing Authority's Hacienda Apartments and President of the Tenants Council, shows a recently caught bedbug as she talks about the infestation problem at the complex in Richmond, Calif. Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2009. (Kristopher Skinner/Staff)

RICHMOND — Slats of saffron light creep up the wall as afternoon inches toward dusk at Billy Nichols' apartment. Warm air and sound pour through his open security gate from the fifth-floor breezeway beyond.

Discomfort prevents him from zipping up his pants, but the 68-year-old diabetic maintains a clear-eyed composure, despite a galaxy of pustular bedbug bites on his back and buttocks.

This Richmond resident knows what scores of others learned during an itchy, unsanitary summer at this city-maintained complex.

It gets worse. Just wait until the light dies.

"They come out of the walls, the ceiling, when it's dark. I just sit here in my chair and I hear 'em," Nichols said. "I feel them on me, crawling on my arms."

A plague of the bloodsucking pests continues to torment scores of tenants in the 150-unit Hacienda high-rise in central Richmond, where the city Housing Authority houses the poor, elderly and disabled. Tenant leaders estimate that a bedbug infestation first noticed in March has spread to at least half the apartments.

They wonder why they're still waiting for relief, six months later.

"I was homeless for four years. I slept in fields, under freeway overpasses," said Denise Cordoba, who lives on the fourth floor. "But it wasn't until I moved here that I got bedbugs."

City officials say they plan to treat infested units. Residents suggest the city empty every unit by moving tenants into temporary housing and fumigating the entire complex, an option Housing Authority Director Tim Jones said he will consider.

"We will inspect and treat as many units as necessary to fully eradicate the problem," Jones said.

Jones said he knew of 11 affected apartments, though the tenants council sent the Housing Authority a petition for relief in mid-April that 63 tenants signed.

Cockroaches and rats make their appearances, always have. But bedbugs bite. Their saliva makes skin itch, raises bumps that stand out on exposed arms and legs throughout the complex on a warm weekday afternoon. The pests burrow maddeningly into the building, literally and figuratively. They have come to dominate the thoughts and conversations of most who live here.

"I'm up all night long," Cordoba said. "I wonder what's going up in my hair, my ear."

Cordoba knows the bugs will come for her when she starts to drift. So instead of resting, she lies awake all night on blankets on her bedroom floor, despite her arthritis. She used to have a mattress, but it was so infested that she had to get rid of it.

Exterminators visited a handful of units in May, told the tenants to call back if they started seeing more bugs in 20 days or so, said Dolores Johnson, president of the tenants council. Cordoba called after 10, but nobody came out to spray again. A number of residents received letters in mid-August telling them the city would exterminate but needs them to vacate for at least eight days. The Housing Authority and members of the resident council met Thursday to discuss how to tackle the problem.

Bug bites now mark residents and frequent visitors to the Hacienda like an exotic leprosy. Tenants poke speckled arms out their doors for inspection, talk about how their grandchildren no longer visit.

"It's an ungodly feeling," Cordoba said, "like the hair standing up on the back of your neck."

Some collect great jars and bags of the flat, red-brown insects. Itch medicine doesn't always help. Nor does getting down on hands and knees to scrub walls and floors with bleach, which Nichols does daily, despite his paraplegia.

The bugs just keep coming back, no matter how many times you wash your sheets and clothes.

"They like to hang on in the seams of mattresses," Nichols said. "I used to brush mine every day. But I could see these tiny little pink things coming up through the fabric. Those are the babies. The adults are about the size of an apple seed, look just like them."

The wingless bugs grow to about one-quarter inch in length, and all drink the blood of people and warm-blooded animals. When a bedbug feeds, its body swells and turns bright red, according to Contra Costa Health Services. They crawl or are carried from one place to another and, like roaches, spread gregariously.

Spraying in one unit will not eliminate the pests if they remain in the immediate area; for this reason, tenants advocate a building-wide extermination.

It can't come soon enough for Shirley Malbrough, whose grandchildren won't visit because they're afraid.

Malbrough lives in a stark room, mattress pulled away from the wall. Not that it helps.

"They've been biting on me since April, and they're still biting on me," Malbrough said. "It's no way to live."

Reach Katherine Tam at 510-262-2787 or ktam@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/katherinetam. Reach Karl Fischer at 510-262-2728 or kfischer@bayareanewsgroup.com.

About BED BUGS
  • Small reddish-brown insects that grow to be a quarter-inch long and live as long as 18 months without feeding.
  • Bedbugs hide in confined spaces such as cracks, crevices, behind peeling paint and the folds of mattresses and other furniture. They feed on blood, usually at night when people are sleeping.
  • Bites are itchy, but bedbugs are not known to spread disease.
  • They may be accidentally carried from place to place in clothes, furniture, suitcases and other items.
  • Extermination must be done by a pest-control expert, and by sealing cracks and crevices and laundering or removing infested belongings.

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    For more photos from the Hacienda apartments in Richmond, visit www.ContraCostaTimes.com.