Foul, then foreclosure: Benham Road tenants left in the lurch

Groton — It's not like the residents at the Five Corners end of Benham Road want to be living in apartments that have yielded complaints to the health department over the past few years of bedbugs, broken windows, rats, crumbling stairs and black mold.

But between fixed incomes and reliance on public transportation, moving somewhere else may not be an easy task.

Though not in subsidized housing, the residents of the seven apartments in three buildings at 8-10, 16 and 22 Benham Road are low-income, including some who are physically or mentally disabled.

Everyone living there constitutes "quite literally the most vulnerable aspects of society," said Brian Burnett, who has lived on the first floor of 16 Benham Road since 2013 but now is trying to move. He said the housing authorities in New London and Groton accepted his applications last week, but he doesn't know how long the waiting lists are.

Foreclosure proceedings wrapped up on these properties in March, after owner John F. McDonald III — under the business name Real Estate Rescue Services LLC — failed to pay back a $377,000 mortgage loan, and after years of unpaid taxes to the town.

"It was a bad investment on my part," McDonald told The Day Friday. "I had tenants that didn't want to pay the rent, so if they don't pay the rent, you don't have money."

In May and June, GBU Capital LLC — the lender that is now the owner — sent residents in all seven units a notice to leave, the start of eviction proceedings. GBU then filed suit against five of the renters — Burnett is not one of them — and two since have moved out.

The new owner brought on Groton-based IMT Realty as the new property management company, effective April 26.

"The buildings are in pretty bad shape but not in uninhabitable shape, you know what I mean?" Burnett said. "They're just old."

On a sunny afternoon in late July, he walked into his kitchen and opened the cabinet under the sink to show one of the issues he is facing: a chunk of the back wall of the cabinet was missing, leaving exposed a pipe against a backdrop of black mold.

When his upstairs neighbor does laundry, water pours down behind the sink into the basement. The plumbing issues have gone on long enough — since the previous owner — that his countertop has buckled.

Walking to his computer, Burnett pulled up a video of dirty washing machine water bubbling up through the drain, soiling the clean dishes he had placed in half of the split sink.

Until about two years ago, he worked as the night meat manager at Stop & Shop. But when he was getting off the bus one day, he collapsed. His neighbors on the bus told him his face turned blue and everything swelled immediately. He found out he had sepsis.

"All of my internal organs had gone out for vacation, except for my heart," he said.

Now Burnett, 58, is living off his $1,507 monthly disability benefits through Social Security, of which $650 goes to rent. He said he declined an offer from IMT to move into a $650-a-month place in Norwich, citing the lack of a convenient bus route to the grocery store and the distance from his doctor.

Under Connecticut law, the disabled or elderly cannot be evicted from a complex with five or more units without cause. (The six units at 8-10 and 16 Benham Road are on the same parcel, according to court records.) Nonpayment of rent constitutes cause, but the expiration of a lease does not. Burnett's lease was up April 30.

On the second floor, above Burnett, Kendra Fernald has lived with her husband and five kids in a three-bedroom apartment since January.

"I wish I never moved here," she said. "This is a dump. Everybody's just getting away with all of this stuff."

Fernald cited a dysfunctional bathroom sink, broken stove, kitchen floor that is starting to cave from water leakage, and damaged furnace covers.

Like everyone else, she got a notice to leave. But her lease goes until Dec. 31, and GBU did not file a complaint against her in court. Fernald declined IMT's offer of $500 to have her lease terminated Aug. 9, in addition to the return of her security deposit, finding it too low.

"All we know is that we were told that the properties were in bad condition and he just thinks they need to be emptied," said IMT Realty owner Mary Nasi, referring to building owner Christopher West, managing member of GBU.

She added in a follow-up conversation, "We've offered to help people find other places. We're not heartless. There are definitely places we can help people find that are going to be a more comfortable place to live."

On July 22, property manager Kelly Sisco told Ledge Light Health District the owner was looking to knock down the buildings, according to records from Ledge Light.

West did not respond to messages seeking comment on his plans.

City of Groton Building and Zoning Official Carlton Smith said Friday that nobody had asked the city for a demolition permit for the properties.

Mayor Keith Hedrick said the week prior that the city does not write orders of condemnation, but rather could deem a building an unsafe structure. He said July 30 that no resident had filed a complaint against the landlord, but then Fernald filed one Aug. 1.

Lender, town take owner to court

The Benham Road properties previously were owned by John and Susan McDonald, under Real Estate Rescue Services LLC.

In April 2018, GBU Capital LLC filed an action in Superior Court to foreclose their mortgage, according to court records online.

John McDonald told The Day of his original decision to purchase the properties, "I don't know, it looked like it might be a good deal and good piece of property to purchase, and didn't work out."

West of GBU swore in an affidavit that Real Estate Rescue Services owed $580,926.44: the original $377,000, plus $152,403.44 in interest and $51,523 in unpaid loan extension fees. This includes the apartment buildings and 91 Poquonnock Road, which Real Estate Rescue Services owned and which contains a Subway restaurant.

The court granted a judgment of strict foreclosure on March 18 of this year.

Partially overlapping with this lawsuit were three cases — separately for 8-10, 16 and 22 Benham Road — the Town of Groton brought against Real Estate Rescue Services for unpaid taxes in 2016, 2017 and 2018.

The defense attorney in that case said he did not believe a legitimate defense existed, according to court records. The town attorney offered a payment plan of $3,600 per month starting Nov. 30, which Real Estate Rescue Services accepted.

On April 16, IMT Realty sent the tenants letters stating that it would be the new property manager as of April 26.

In June and July, GBU filed suit against the tenants in five units. Four of the complaints alleged that leases were up May 31, and that rent was not paid either on May 1 or on both May 1 and April 1.

One of these tenants has since moved out, and one was given a final stay through Sept. 15, according to court records. The former had marked in her answer to the complaint that no rent was due because of housing or health code violations.

Eviction proceedings are ongoing for two people who both marked in their answers that they have a physical or mental disability. Attorney Yona Gregory, who is representing GBU, declined to comment on any of the cases.

The fifth complaint did not allege nonpayment of rent but just lapse of time, stating the lease expired on Sept. 30, 2018. That tenant, Sabrina Walser, said she tried getting another lease but was just paying month to month. Walser said she moved with her husband and four kids to Torrington, and was able to transfer from the Walmart where she previously worked to one there, before the completion of court proceedings.

"We were already planning on moving, because it was a mess," she told The Day. "They wanted us to live under unsanitary everything. I was like, 'I'm tired of this,' so we left."

A history of health and building complaints

The Day requested complaints that Ledge Light Health District received about the properties going back five years.

In response to one complaint in August 2017, Ledge Light verified that the shower in 8 Benham "was leaking profusely into a bucket in the basement when the water was on. An abundance of rat droppings were also observed in the basement." Ledge Light also determined that the ventilation in the bathroom was inadequate and observed mold on the ceiling.

The tenant at the time also expressed concern to Ledge Light about a cracked glass window in a bedroom, missing bedroom door and crumbling concrete stairs.

This was shortly before Walser moved in. When Walser moved out last month, she said there was still no fan in the bathroom, the bedroom door was still missing, and the cracked glass window was repaired but it doesn't open or shut properly.

Upstairs, in 10 Benham, Ledge Light found a hole in the wall.

A representative of Ledge Light returned on the Sept. 12 deadline for fixing the issues, and found that the plumbing had been fixed and the rat droppings cleared from the basement.

But the shower wastewater had just been dumped in the backyard, there was still some mold buildup in the bathroom and the hole in the wall hadn't been fixed. The next day, the upstairs tenant reported that the hole had been covered and sealed with caulk.

In late September, McDonald told Ledge Light he intended to start installing a vent in the downstairs bathroom, but in late October he said he didn't have the money to do so.

Ledge Light visited 8 Benham again that November, found that "conditions looked good" in the bathroom after the mold cleanup, and closed the case. The inspector told Walser and her family to reopen the complaint if mold conditions arose again.

In August 2018, Walser called in a complaint about black mold, saying the landlord was not addressing the issue and her family was getting sick from it. In November, she told Ledge Light that two men came to the apartment to paint the bathroom to cover the mold.

McDonald mentioned to The Day that he put mold-resistant paint on the ceiling, and the last he heard, everything was fine. Walser told The Day paint chips were coming off and flaking into her children's hair.

Speaking not about Walser but more generally, McDonald said, "Whatever we could take care of, we took care of for them, and I tried to take care of the people, but they're late on their rent."

Ledge Light said it closed the complaint after not hearing back from Walser.

On April 30, she filed a complaint stating she didn't have water or heat for three days because she ran out of oil.

Residents don't handle their own oil because units share a single tank. Mary Nasi said if tenants are running low they just need to tell IMT, rather than calling on an evening or weekend to say the oil has been out for three days.

Next door to Walser, at 16 Benham, Burnett commented, "I'm not wading through bedbug-infested mattresses to monitor the damn oil tank, period." At 22 Benham, Jody Constant has gone as far as calling police when her oil is out.

Beyond those calls, Groton City police Chief Michael Spellman said Friday that officers are at these addresses frequently "for everything on the spectrum." He elaborated that this includes criminal investigations, intoxication and quality-of-life issues.

The Day on Tuesday filed Freedom of Information Act requests with both the city police department and mayor's office, seeking emails, records and other documents pertaining to the properties.

Burnett called Ledge Light on June 10 to report black mold in the bathroom and rats in the basement at 16 Benham. On June 25, Constant called about a bedbug problem on the third floor of 16 Benham.

Two days later, Ledge Light observed in the basement of 16 Benham mattresses from the third floor that were "infested with bed bugs," along with "an active bed bug infestation in the woman's carpet and in the son's mattress" on the third floor.

Ledge Light sent letters to the third-floor tenants and residents at 22 Benham, instructing them to remove the clutter around the properties, such as garbage bags, bicycles, electronics and tires at the latter address.

On July 10, Ledge Light issued two public health orders to West. One was to have debris removed and a professional pest control operator hired for the vermin at 8-10 Benham. For 16 Benham, the order was to have the plumbing leak abated and to hire a pest control operator to address the bedbug infestation.

Steve Mansfield, director of health for Ledge Light, said in an email Wednesday that IMT hired an exterminator to complete an inspection on Monday, to ensure the residents are prepared for treatment.

"If the apartments are not ready or the treatment simply does not occur, then the case will be sent to the housing prosecutors," Mansfield wrote. Preparation instructions include removing clothing, bedding and toys from the apartment until treatment is over, and emptying drawers.

"We have done everything we can in regard to the bedbug situation. The tenants have to do their part," Mary Nasi of IMT said. She said the company sent someone over on multiple occasions to see if the tenants were ready for the extermination, and every time they weren't.

"The gentleman who owns the buildings (West), he's a good man," Nasi said. "He has every intention of repairing the buildings, but it's become nearly impossible. They're in deplorable condition, and it's not his fault."

e.moser@theday.com

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