URBANA — A novel University of Illinois-funded research partnership promises to empower local tenants to control bedbug infestations.
The plan: Finance a small cohort from the Housing Authority of Champaign County’s job-training program, YouthBuild, to become state-certified exterminators by year’s end.
The project will run on $74,973 awarded in this year’s round of “Call to Action” research programs granted by UI Chancellor Robert Jones. For the second year in a row, the chancellor’s office is committing $2 million toward projects that address racism and social injustices.
Principal investigators Daniel Schneider and Andrew Greenlee, both in the UI’s Urban and Regional Planning department, co-authored research investigating the connection between bedbug prevalence and low-income neighborhoods in Chicago.
“That was the impetus for this proposal — we’d found this socioeconomic relationship, and then the questions were, ‘Why is that the case and what can we do about it?’” Schneider said. “And we wanted to work with the people who are most affected.”
The housing authority, the region’s provider of public housing, offers its YouthBuild job-training program to at-risk young adults ages 16 to 24. Participants are taught how to build and rehabilitate homes.
Most of the research program’s cash will finance stipends for the YouthBuild group to pick up pest-control skills. The money is effectively a scholarship: Members of the program will enroll in a course designed to help them pass the Illinois General Standards Exam for pest-control application.
The researchers plan to put five to 10 students through the course, taught by co-investigator Vinisha Singh Basnet, a doctoral candidate in entomology and urban planning.
Students will also have the opportunity to shadow exterminators from the housing authority’s pest-control provider, Orkin.
Schneider’s background is in ecology and biology. After experiencing his own bout with bedbugs, the issue became of scholarly interest to him.
Handling the infestation in his house was a “nightmare,” Schneider said. It involved moving all of his furniture away from the walls, drying all of his bedding at high heats, washing all of his clothes and containing them to prevent re-infestation.
“It’s kind of like moving, but you’re not moving,” Schneider said. “And then it’s really expensive.”
The itchy lesions bedbugs leave with their bites may require more attention, but exterminations of the resilient insects regularly cost more than $1,000.
“For lower-income people, if they can’t afford it, they’ll resort to home remedies, which can be dangerous,” Schneider said, like setting off a fogger in their apartments, applying ineffective pesticides, or worse, setting off alcohol or kerosene fires to kill the bugs.
“Typically, tenants are blamed for these infestations, which is not really fair because bedbugs are just a part of the ecosystem,” Schneider said. “They can crawl into the apartment, you can bring them in through used furniture, there are all kinds of ways — it doesn’t make sense to blame individuals when it’s essentially a community problem.”
The research team — Schneider, Greenlee, Basnet and housing authority Deputy Director Temeka Couch — have already presented to some prospective YouthBuild participants, and they plan to bring a few to visit the UI’s medical entomology lab by the end of this week.
Once certified, participants will be allowed to help clients control pests in a professional setting. But Schneider hopes the students become “ambassadors” for bedbug control for the tenants living in Champaign County’s subsidized housing communities.
“One of the great things about this program the university developed is it’s built to work with local communities,” Schneider said.
“Building Tenant-based Capacity to Address Bed Bug Infestations in Low-Income Housing” is one of 25 Call to Action proposals that received funding this year from the UI. Awards ranged from $25,000 to $75,000, totaling $1.49 million for the second year of the program.