CHESTER - One thing Antonio and Heather Ponziani don't tell their children when they put them to bed at night is, "Don't let the bedbugs bite."
Their sons, Antonio Jr., 4, and Isiah, 2, have had their share of bedbug bites - to the point of needing medical care - since the family moved into Riverside Apartments, 224 Ferry Road, Chester, 10 months ago, the parents said.
Antonio Ponziani Sr. said his family's suffering from a stubborn bedbug infestation at Apt. 38 has been compounded by the fact that they can't get satisfaction from their landlord, John Adkins, of Chester.
PROPERTY INFESTED WITH BUGS — Antonio and Heather Ponziani, with their children, from left, Isiah and Antonio Jr., sit on one of the few pieces of furniture in their Chester apartment. The couple says they’ve had to get rid of their property because of a bedbug infestation. -- Stephen Huba
Ponziani said he has complained to the City of Chester, the Hancock County Health Department, even to a lawyer. But he said the problem persists, so he's preparing to take legal action.
"This fight is not over. It's just begun," Ponziani said. "I'm going to keep fighting 'til something gets done and he is forced to take care of the infestation."
Ponziani, 24, said he and his wife, Heather, 30, who have been together eight years, first noticed bites on their sons about a month after moving into the two-bedroom apartment in October 2012. They pay their $400 monthly rent with the help of federal housing assistance and have a one-year lease, he said.
"We thought it was from fleas ... from a dog or a cat. Then my neighbor tells me, 'You know this building's infested with bedbugs.' I went and asked the landlord about it, and he admitted to a long-term infestation," Ponziani said.
The parents had to throw away bedding from their sons' bedroom, but it didn't stop there. They've had to throw away other belongings, some of which were being rented and still require payments, Ponziani said.
Neither Ponziani nor his wife is working right now, and both collect disability - Antonio because of congenital blindness in his left eye and Heather because of health problems related to a stroke when she was an infant.
"All of us are sleeping on the floor," Ponziani said. "We've lost everything. Everything has to stay behind. We can't take anything with us."
The Ponzianis' apartment has a sparce appearance - the only furnishings in the living room are a couch and an entertainment center. Neither bedroom has a bed. The parents point to marks on the wall that they say are dead bedbugs.
Soon after he noticed the bites, Ponziani said he started trapping the bugs with a lint roller. He keeps pages of the roller's adhesive paper, each one dotted with multiple dead bugs, in plastic sandwich bags as evidence. Each page is marked with a date and time.
Ponziani said Adkins responded to his requests for action by having the apartment complex's maintenance personnel treat the apartment. When that didn't work, Ponziani said the landlord first balked at bringing in a professional exterminator and finally hired Leaf Pest Control of East Liverpool.
The extermination treatments were too little, too late, Ponziani said.
Adkins, however, said it's his tenant who's being uncooperative - failing to properly prepare the apartment for the treatments and declining a follow-up inspection.
"It was the opinion of the exterminator that the tenants were never ready for treatment. They were given a letter explaining what they had to do," Adkins said.
Leaf did three treatments - one in June, two in July - and returned on Aug. 9 for a follow-up inspection. Ponziani wouldn't let them in, Adkins said, noting that the other two apartments treated by Leaf were given a clean report.
The other two apartments were infested, Adkins said, from people going in and out of Apt. 38. Adkins believes the problem originated with his tenants, while Ponziani said Adkins failed to inform him of an infestation that pre-dated their occupancy.
"According to the man at Leaf, he said I've done more than other landlords in the area would do," Adkins said. "I've tried to work with (Ponziani). Unless they let them in to inspect, I'm at a standstill, I guess."
The bedbug problem at Riverside got the attention of Chester City Council in July, but the city's powers to deal with the issue are limited, Solicitor April Raines said.
Although it has supporting legislation dating back to 1987, the city has no building enforcement agency, building inspector or health officer. Raines said an unkempt property ordinance amended by council in April prohibits the accumulation of junk, garbage, refuse, rubbish and debris but does not address the problem of pests such as bedbugs.
Raines raised the issue with council at its July 15 meeting, but Mayor Ken Morris said he saw no reason for the city to get involved, according to the meeting minutes.
Ponziani said he went to New Cumberland attorney Lawrence Manypenny as a last resort. Manypenny sent Adkins a letter asking the landlord to pay his client $58,000 as compensation for lost property, medical expenses and "loss of life, annoyance, inconvenience, nuisance (and) anxiety."
The letter, dated July 29, states that the offer is good for seven days and may be followed by the filing of a lawsuit. Adkins said he forwarded the letter to his insurance company.
Ponziani wonders what it's going to take for the problem to be fixed and for his family to move on. Moving out is not an option because they have nowhere to go and can't take anything with them, he said.
"I told (Adkins), 'My kids can't live with this situation. Can you put us in a hotel?' He said, 'Just hang in there.' That was in June. No one should have to deal with this," he said.
(Huba can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)