🏠 This article is part of a series we’re writing about tenants’ rights in Philadelphia. Got a question? Ask us using the form at the bottom of this article.

Most of us in Philly have seen an occasional cockroach or mouse in our homes. After all, these types of pests are something of a fact of life in a major city.

But what if those sightings are ... more than occasional? And if you rent, who is responsible for dealing with the problem — you, or your landlord?

Well, it can be complicated, depending on your situation.

“There is not really any set rules or codes about pest extermination being the responsibility of the tenant or the landlord,” says Osarugue Grace Osa-Edoh, an attorney with Community Legal Services of Philadelphia. “It’s not clear, except in the case of bedbugs.”

Philadelphia, however, does have rules about the condition of rental properties that can help. So, if you’re infested, here are basic things that you should know:

Your rights as a tenant

Read more from our tenants' rights guide:

» Rodents and bugs

» Breaking a lease

» Landlord entry

» Security deposits

» Withholding rent

» Eviction notices

» Rent increases

» Property sale and foreclosure

Check your lease

If you suspect you have an insect or rodent infestation in your home, the first thing you should do is check your lease, which may have a section explaining who is responsible for pest control and when. Some, for example, might say that you are responsible for taking care of a pest problem after a certain amount of time living in the unit. Or, it might say nothing at all.

In either case, you should speak with your landlord and let them know about the infestation. You may be able to work out an agreement with your landlord to share the cost of extermination — particularly if your lease is silent on extermination responsibilities.

Communicate with your landlord in writing

It’s a good idea to have your communications in writing in case the situation escalates.

“If you are used to communicating through the phone, you can have a phone call and send a follow-up email and summarize the situation,” Osa-Edoh says. “That way, you don’t have to worry about it later.”

What are your landlord’s responsibilities?

The Philadelphia Property Maintenance Code states that landlords are responsible for:

  • Extermination on their properties before they rent to a new tenant.
  • Infestations caused by “defects in the structure,” such as a crack or hole through which pests can enter.
  • In multi-unit housing, landlords are responsible for extermination in public or shared areas.

However, argues Osa-Edoh, a landlord’s responsibility for pest control doesn’t end there.

Landlords are responsible for something called an “implied warranty of habitability,” she says. That means rental properties have to be “safe and sanitary,” and landlords have to fix “serious defects” in their units, according to the Housing Equality Center of Pennsylvania.

Osa-Edoh says that infestations often happen because of a structural problem, so she typically advises that tenants call L&I and report the issue, which could result in a violation that may “get the landlord in gear.”

“Philadelphia is a city with old housing stock, so there are likely to be structural problems.”

But, the landlord could argue that you are leaving food out or not cleaning up properly, and the infestation is your fault — so you may end up on the hook for extermination.

“It comes down to between the landlord and tenant, who is willing to fight out the issue?” she says.

Resource list

What are your responsibilities?

Even with the implied warranty of habitability, the Philadelphia Property Maintenance Code generally puts the responsibility for pest extermination on tenants. According to the code, if you live in a single family home, you are responsible for “extermination on the premises.” And whether it’s a house or apartment, tenants are responsible for keeping the place in “rodent and pest-free condition.”

The city’s “Partners for Good Housing” brochure — which landlords are supposed to give to tenants — says that tenants in houses “must keep the house clean and sanitary.” But if you live in a multi-unit building, both “the occupant and owner” are responsible, even if it’s your fault.

Confused? Yeah. Some of those rules seem inconsistent. So if you have an infestation, Osa-Edoh recommends calling the Philly Tenant Hotline for advice at 267-443-2500. (That’s especially true if you are considering withholding rent, as that is where things tend to get more dicey, so you should “be careful about how you go about that,” she says.)

And while pest control responsibilities can be complicated, George Gould, an attorney with Community Legal Services, puts it more simply. “I would say that if you move in and find mice, that is a habitability issue,” and the landlord has to deal with it, he says. “Once you are there for a while, it is the occupant’s responsibility.”

What about bedbugs?

There is one big exception in Philly as far as who is clearly responsible when dealing with an infestation: bedbugs.

New rules that go into effect in January 2021 makes landlords responsible for the investigation and remediation of bedbug infestations.

But you have to report the issue within one year of the start of your lease — after that, the costs are shared. And if you find out that an adjoining unit is infested with bedbugs, you have 180 days to tell the property’s landlord about the problem.

There’s more: Landlords have to tell tenants about previous bedbug infestations, and develop a plan to deal with the pests. The new rules were passed late last year. Once they go into effect, the rules will be enforced by L&I.

“It will be a major improvement — we just have to make sure it is enforced,” says Gould, who helped write the bedbug bill. “Most major cities in the country have some remediation requirement for bedbugs. In Philadelphia, we are one of the most infested cities in the country.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.