Third World Ottawa

With bed bugs living in the walls and falling out of the oven fan, you’d think you were in the developing world—not in the nation’s capital. But the pests are a common problem for Ottawa’s social housing residents.

Rob Caron, from the Ottawa-based Orkin pest control company, says bed bug complaints have increased by 30 percent since 2008.

The 5–10mm bugs can live up to 18 months without feeding and only outlawed agents like DDT can wipe them out wherever they live.

“As long as there’s a host, there’s a problem,” says Caron.

And Jack Kring couldn’t agree more.

The 58-year-old Sudbury native has lived in a social housing unit on Wiggins Private in Sandy Hill for five years. Kring’s voice quavered with emotion as he described his family’s battles with bed bugs.

Jack Kring on bed bugs in Ottawa’s social housing by marcellison

“The mattresses we couldn’t get rid of, but we should’ve, but I don’t have the money to buy mattresses again,” said Kring.

His family has to put five plastic covers over their mattresses to ensure the bed bugs don’t escape.

“My son couldn’t go to school because they didn’t want it spread, and he missed three months of school,” adds Kring.

Kring is also currently fighting the City of Ottawa, which he thinks should reimburse him for $9,000 he spent on hotel bills after his apartment was sprayed.

“I had to move out because with my health problems, being on oxygen, there is a fume after a spray and they say it only lasts 24 hours,” said Kring. “For me, with one lung, I breathe all that stuff.”

Trevor Haché, the NDP candidate in Ottawa-Vanier, says he’s heard half a dozen complaints related to bed bugs.

“Most people don’t want to talk about bed bugs, because there’s all sorts of stigma that goes along with it,” says Haché. “People suggest that it has something to do with cleanliness, which it doesn’t.”

Haché thinks the root of the problem is chronic underfunding of social housing by the federal government.

“The Liberal government in the 1990s cancelled the national housing strategy,” said Haché. “Up until that time, it was a national, federal issue in Canada—then the decision was downloaded to the provinces, and then further down to the municipalities.”

Haché says Canada is now one of the only major countries in the world without a national housing strategy.

There are nearly 10,000 people on the seven-to-10-year waiting list for affordable social housing in Ottawa alone.

The Ottawa Community Housing Corporation is the capital’s largest housing provider. It’s responsible for 15,000 homes and 32,000 residents. Laurene Wagner, the executive director of the tenant services department, spoke to the funding her organization needs.

“Over the next five years, we need over $300 million to maintain our housing portfolio to a reasonable standard,” said Wagner.

In 2008, the city subsidized its 56 housing providers with $109 million—and even with the recent federal grant of $36 million, that still means there’s a significant shortfall.

As a result, OCHC has not built any new housing since 2005 and has had to take money out of itd reserves to make repairs.

Wagner confirmed that there had been over 900 bed bug complaints in 2010—a decrease from over 1,000 in 2009.

But with limited funding, organizations like OCHC are handcuffed in how thoroughly they can deal with these issues.

In 2011, the Ontario government also announced that it would provide $5 million to help battle bed bugs.

But Haché sees this as not just a provincial issue.

“It’s worthy of a federal government task force,” he says. “But people can get around and talk until they’re blue in the face—what needs to happen is money needs to flow.”

In the meantime, Kring has had enough and plans to move back to Sudbury.

“I’m fed up. I’ve had my fill of it. I just can’t take it no more,” he said. “My blood pressure’s so high, I’m getting constant nosebleeds.”

“For senior citizens, there’s nobody should be treated this way in the City of Ottawa,” Kring says. “I mean, this is the capital—to be treated that way, no way.”