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Rat Population Explodes Critics Say Budget Cuts Crippled City’s ‘Model’ Control Program By Jenny Laurie

The rats are so bad in our building that we can’t use the laundry room at night--you can see them coming out of the cracks in the walls." --Tenant in HUD building in the Bronx

In response to a worsening rat problem in New York City, Councilmember Bill Perkins held a "Rat Summit" on Nov. 29. Cosponsored by the Daily News and Columbia University, where it was held, the conference brought together city, state and federal officials, scientists and community activists, to discuss the extent of the city’s rat problem and the best ways to reduce the rat population.

From testimony by rat experts from the city Department of Health to the loud complaints from members of the audience, the evidence is clear: The rat population in the city’s buildings, parks, and vacant lots is exploding. According to Les Goodstein, president and chief operating officer of the Daily News, rats now outnumber people in the city 12 to 1.

Goodstein concluded his remarks, which consisted mostly of reading horrifying letters from his readers about rats in their buildings, by saying that the News would play a major part in the campaign to reduce the rat population in the city. He promised to support any legislation that would help, including one bill that would require that trash be stored and put on the streets in metal or heavy plastic cans. The collection of experts from academia and government seemed to be in complete agreement about the solution: New York City needs to stop feeding the rats and stop practices that give them comfortable places to live.

The most compelling message of the conference came from keynote speaker Dr. Bruce Colvin, a self-described "rat guy," who asked the audience to understand the lifestyle of the rat. The Norway rat, our particular pest species, was brought to these shores 200 years ago with the European colonists and has been breeding every since. Rats, not surprisingly, like to eat and reproduce. They will eat any food that is left out for them, and they will chew through almost anything to get to the food.

According to Colvin, the way that restaurants and buildings put out trash in plastic bags is nothing short of holding a nightly banquet for the city’s rat population. He emphasized repeatedly that short-term poisoning campaigns don’t work--in fact, massive rat poisonings simply reduce the population temporarily, eliminating competition and spurring the rats’ reproductive cycles. Six months afterwards, he said, the numbers of rats will be higher than before the poisoning campaign. The effective ways to manage the rat population, he told the conference, are the old tried and true methods of eliminating the rats’ food, water, and living areas.

Speakers repeatedly noted that the rat resurgence is relatively recent, following the budget cuts of the last 25 years. Many pointed out that in the 1970s New York City had the best rat-control program in the country. In fact, from World War II to the early 1980s, the federal government had a special office within the Centers for Disease Control to promote urban rat programs, and New York’s was the model for the country. Restaurant owners and landlords were required to dispose of garbage properly and to keep sidewalks and basements in good repair (no cracks)--or they were fined. The rat population was well under control. But in 1981, President Ronald Reagan cut federal aid to cities, and mayors from Edward Koch to Rudolph Giuliani reduced the Department of Health’s allocation for pest control from $18 million in the ‘70s to $5 million in fiscal 1999. (Last year, an increase brought the budget to $13 million.)

Randy Depree, who ran the city’s nationally successful pest-control program for 25 years, says it has been underfunded in recent years. The result, he adds, is that rats have now escaped the "defined border" areas where they were permitted to live (the South Bronx, Central Brooklyn and other poor, communities of color), creating the political agitation that will get control programs expanded. While Deputy Mayor Joseph Lhota, the city’s rat czar, and Public Advocate Mark Green debated the level of government intervention that was necessary, conference speakers were unanimous on the need for a consolidated, powerful, program with the ability to target violators and collect fines.

Speakers also pushed the need to go back to metal garbage cans, with plastic bags inside them to prevent the spread of bad smells and loose garbage, and make the garbage easier to collect. (What New Yorker can forget the old 4 AM garbage symphony--the metal cans scraped over the sidewalk to the truck, thrown into the truck, banged against the side of the truck, and then bounced back onto the sidewalk.)

Noticeably absent from the conference was landlord or management representation. As readers of Tenant/Inquilino know, opposition from the owners/developers community on these issues is a serious hurdle. Three pieces of legislation are currently pending in the City Council which would address the problem: Intro 677, which would require privately contracted construction sites to be kept clean and baited with rat poison or traps; Intro 823, which would require that garbage be stored and put out for collection in bags and then in metal or heavy, rat-proof containers; and Resolution 1496, which would call upon the Department of Health to start testing for and tracking rat-borne diseases.

For more information on how to handle a rat problem, or how to handle garbage, call the following:

West Harlem Environmental Action (WE ACT) at (212) 961-1000 has informative, easy-to-understand fact sheets on the dangers of rats and of rat poisons, with suggestions on how to control the pests without harming children and pets.

For general complaints about rat sightings, call the Department of Health at (212) 442-9666.