Kobie Emanuel’s doctor gave him an unusual prognosis: Your public housing apartment is threatening your health.
Both the infectious disease doctor and an examination during an emergency room visit in 2017 determined that the welts across Emanuel’s body were caused by bedbugs allegedly from the Charlottetowne Terrace, a public housing high-rise just outside uptown.
Yet the landlord, the Charlotte Housing Authority, insists there is no evidence of bedbugs in the building. The agency suggested Emanuel remove the furniture from his apartment and buy replacements.
That leaves Emanuel with a tough choice.
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Emanuel, 53, suffers from an autoimmune disease that makes infections and other illnesses more dangerous than for the average person.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says bedbugs — a reddish-brown parasite smaller than the size of an apple seed — are not believed to transmit diseases, but their bites can cause excessive itching, increase the odds of secondary skin infections and cause anxiety.
Emanuel said he stopped working as a cook at Johnson C. Smith University four years ago because he is disabled.
That leaves him with no stable income since he is still waiting for the government to decide whether he qualifies for monthly disability benefits. Documents tied to his successful application for Medicaid — a joint federal and state health insurance program for low-income people — show he has degenerative disc disease in his spine. He testified that he has problems walking and standing for long periods, using his left arm and sometimes requires help with personal hygiene.
He first applied for disability in 2013 and like most applicants was denied. The appeals process — which is typically far more favorable to applicants — can often take years. The amount disability recipients receive is based on lifetime earnings and the average award is about $1,200 a month.
Emanuel said he now begs strangers for money to pay his $75 monthly rent.
“I sprayed Raid on my skin” to keep the bedbugs off, Emanuel said, referring to the bug-killing spray. “It’s the only thing I can do.”
The Charlotte Housing Authority, overseen by a seven-member board appointed by Charlotte's mayor and city council, houses more than 21,000 people across the city.
While the agency has moved in recent years to build homes for all income levels, it's best known for using federal tax money to provide shelter for people and families with low incomes.
The Housing Authority acknowledges that it is responsible for ridding buildings of bedbugs or other pests that can pose a threat to public health.
But Mecklenburg County Commissioner Pat Cotham said Emanuel’s case reflects the Housing Authority’s indifference to complaints raised by tenants, who are often elderly, disabled or too afraid to effectively advocate for themselves.
Cotham conducted an unsuccessful campaign on Facebook late last year to pressure the Housing Authority to give more help to a woman living in a government-subsidized home she alleged was infested with rats.
Since she spoke to Housing Authority leaders about Emanuel’s case, Cotham said they have taken little action.
“I have heard from other seniors with bedbugs, so you’ve got to get this fixed,” Cotham said of residents at Charlottetowne Terrace. “We don’t have enough affordable housing, and what we do have is not safe and sanitary.”
Housing Authority spokeswoman Cheron Porter said that bedbugs and other pests can pose problems in its buildings, especially since tenants can bring them in their belongings from outside their homes.
However, the agency responds appropriately when it receives complaints, Porter said. That sometimes means calling exterminators who perform inspections or treatments, she said.
"We take this very seriously," Porter said. "There is an immediate response to bedbugs."
A doctor’s note
Emanuel says his health is failing.
He has been treated for multiple conditions, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, chronic degenerative disc and anemia, records show.
Pictures show his arms and shoulders dotted with small welts he says are from bedbug bites.
In November, his doctor at Carolinas Medical Center wrote to the Housing Authority. “The patient has chronicled evidence of bedbug bites,” Dr. Marc Johnson wrote. “He needs to move from this apartment and the apartment needs professional intervention.”
The CDC says bedbugs often hide in areas where people sleep in apartments, hotels, cruise ships and shelters. They feed on the blood of people and animals.
Emanuel said he sleeps in his apartment. He said he cannot think of any place else where he would be likely to come into contact with bedbugs.
Tasha Foote, a property manager for the Housing Authority, suggested Emanuel find his own solution.
In a November letter to Emanuel, Foote said that an exterminator found no signs of bedbugs in his apartment.
“Since these bugs make their home in beds, chairs, etc., a possible solution might be to throw out the furniture in which you are receiving the alleged bites,” Foote wrote. “If we move you to another apartment with the same furniture, you will just take the problem with you.
“Once you have removed the furniture, I am willing to give your home another chemical treatment so let management know when this occurs.”
Porter, the agency spokeswoman, said the Housing Authority had a contractor inspect or treat Emanuel’s apartment and other parts of Charlottetowne Terrace for bedbugs eight times since the beginning of 2017.
Records show a pest control company once treated all 161 apartments for bedbugs last year, costing more than $24,000.
The Housing Authority paid $150 for each chemical treatment and $695 for each heat treatment to Noosa Pest Management applied to Emanuel's apartment.
Exterminators did not find evidence of bedbugs during inspections or treatments, Porter said.
She said she believes the agency has adequately responded to Emanuel’s concerns.
“We can’t justify paying for a relocation for something we can’t document,” Porter said.
But agency records show billings for treatments in at least two other apartments besides Emanuel’s unit. No evidence of bedbugs was found, she said.
Porter said that means the Housing Authority received complaints of bedbugs from tenants in those units.
“We can’t be cavalier about that,” Porter said. “We don’t want anyone’s health threatened.”
‘We have enough critters’
When Emanuel moved into his eighth-floor studio apartment in April 2016, he said, the space appeared clean.
He said he furnished the space with items his family gave him. The furniture was not infested with bedbugs, he said.
Emanuel said he saw his first bedbug a few months later, crawling across a new comforter on his bed.
Emanuel said he wrapped the bedbug in tissue and took it to the front desk to complain. “(The worker) said, ‘Get that out of here. We have enough critters in here,’ ” Emanuel recalled.
He said doesn’t know what he can do now since he believes the Housing Authority failed to rid the building of bedbugs.
Emanuel acknowledges he has been arrested multiple times in recent years, mostly for larceny. He said he was arrested in January for stealing a coat from a department store because he didn't have money to buy it.
"It's nothing I am ashamed of," Emanuel said. "It's hard times. This is about survival."
For now, he said, he sometimes rides public buses to avoid his apartment. Other times, he said, he calls random phone numbers on his phone and begs for money because he can’t afford to lose his home.
“I’m tired of getting bitten,” Emanuel said. “No one believes me. No one wants to take responsibility."