A mold move: residents relocated to hotels
Groton―Sandra Fetters said she is trying to make as normal a life as possible for herself and her two daughters.
She remembers the heart-breaking feeling when she left her home at Branford Manor and walked into the Residence Inn in Mystic with just her clothes, a few possessions and little idea of what the future will bring.
She said Branford Manor officials moved her into the hotel with her teenaged daughters in May after her lips started turning blue. Her doctor has said she should not return to the apartment, until the mold is fully removed, because being around it triggers her asthma, bronchitis and allergies.
Fetters is one of more than 25 Branford Manor residents who have been living in area hotels while mold is being removed from their apartments. They said they feel healthier being out of their apartments, but have had to upend their lives and are anxious about their future. They stress that more needs to be done to root out mold problems at Branford Manor.
She said testing found mold in her apartment, and she was offered a new unit, but testing on that apartment also showed mold. She said she can’t return to Branford Manor because she is concerned for the health of her family with the widespread mold problem. She said she has to throw out most of her possessions, including family photos, and handmade blankets and quilts from her grandmother, because they are contaminated with mold.
She said uncertainty over when she will be told to leave the hotel is causing anxiety, as she does not know where she would live.
But in the hotel, she said she doesn’t have to worry about mold.
“I’m comfortable,” she said in the sun-filled two-bedroom suite, with a living area and small kitchen, that she shares with her daughters and three cats. “I’m relaxed. I feel safe. I don’t have the anxiety I did when we lived over there.”
Residents first came forward with concerns about mold and their living conditions in September of 2021, and they have continued to speak out. The Day’s Housing Solutions Lab, an investigation into housing in the region, interviewed residents at Branford Manor in Groton and at the Williams Park Apartments in New London about mold issues.
Branford Manor Apartments representatives have said they working on a plan to remediate mold and moisture issues at the 441-unit federally subsidized housing complex in the City of Groton. A representative for the Related Companies, which owns Branford Manor, wrote in an Oct. 26 communication to local officials that the process for hotel stays has been revamped to better communicate information with residents and to commit to “extended periods rather than specific estimated number of days per room.”
As of Oct. 18, they said a total of 26 residents have been relocated to area hotels from periods ranging from two days to a month. They have also converted 12 vacant apartments into units where residents can stay while unit is being renovated.
ʽIt’s not home’
In the living area of Latasha Fisher-Harris’ suite at the Residence Inn in Mystic, where she has been living since early July with her husband and college-aged daughter, there is an empty suitcase and cooking pots stacked on top of a bin filled with clothes.
“This is because you don’t know when you’re going to be leaving,” she explained about the bin.
“It’s terrible feeling you’re breathing though a straw all the time,” she said.
She said she was moved into the hotel in early July and hasn’t needed any breathing treatments or allergy medications.
She said she is grateful for the advocacy and support of her lawyer, Amity Arscott, and has been making the space she has work. She said she is grateful for the hotel room, said the hotel staff is nice and there is social hour and a breakfast bar.
“They’ve been very nice with us, I just don’t feel at home,” she said. “My anxiety is high all the time. It’s not home. I just want to be in my home.”
Fisher-Harris said she shouldn’t have to live out of her bags and worry whether or not today is the day Branford Manor representatives tell them they have to move.
She said she has to drive her daughter to New London so she can pick up the bus to go to college. Before she said her daughter could catch a bus from Branford Manor.
But Fisher-Harris said she doesn’t know what she’ll be going back to when she gets her apartment back. When she did a walk-through of her apartment last summer, she had to get her rescue inhaler because the stench was horrible and rat droppings were found in the basement.
Fisher-Harris, who recently was approved for food stamps, said her disability income is just enough to pay the bills each month, and she said she’ll need to replace all her furniture.
“Where are we going to get money to get new furniture from?” she asked.
She and her husband, Lester Harris Sr., who also said he had heath issues from the mold at Branford Manor, have been working hard to find a place that will accept a Section 8 voucher.
Day by day
At the Spring Hill Suites in Waterford, Christine Santos said she is taking it day by day.
When Santos and her kids were having cold-like symptoms, she requested an air quality test offered by her attorney and she said the test showed elevated levels of mold in her apartment.
Santos, who is pregnant and has a two-year-old son, a three-year old son and a 15-year-old daughter, said it’s been difficult for everyone to be in hotels since July and not know what the future holds. Her three-year-old son has autism and thrives on routine and has had a difficult time adjusting.
Her daughter has had to miss out on after-school clubs due to limited transportation, and her toddlers are very energetic but there isn’t a playground within walking distance, though sometimes the family goes to a lake behind the hotel.
“I don’t have any family in Connecticut so the neighborhood and my neighbors have become like family,” Santos explained.
She said there is limited storage space at the hotel and there were concerns about the kids’ toys possibly being contaminated with mold. The family had to buy them new toys so she’s faced a lot of unanticipated costs.
“It’s been very stressful,” she said.
She said the experience has been overwhelming for her family, but she said they’re stuck between a rock and hard place. She said she could go back to the apartment, but the safety and well being of her kids is always the top priority and she said she doesn’t know if it’s safe.
She said the hotel reservations are being done weekly, and she often only finds out the day she’s supposed to check out that the reservation has been extended.
“I have school-aged children,” she said “My three year old is autistic so he gets therapy during the morning, and then in the afternoon, he goes to preschool, so it doesn’t allow enough time for me to be able to get him ready to go to school, pack up my belongings. I’m pregnant also so I need help for these things so I’ve been pleading with them to just leave it with no confirmed end date.”
She said she heard remediation work began on her apartment about two weeks ago, and she heard Branford Manor representatives plan to complete major renovations by February, so she said the most logical thing would be for the renovations to be done at the same time work is being done in her apartment, so she doesn’t have to move back to her apartment and then move back out.
Worry, and constant packing
Branford Manor resident Valarie Levy said she also was moved into the Residence Inn with her 2-year-old daughter due to mold issues. She said the ongoing uncertainty and confusion over when her move-out day is, causes her stress. She said Related changes checkout dates, and sometimes it is communicated to her and sometimes it isn’t. She said sometimes residents only find out their stay is being extended on the day of by checking in the hotel system.
Levy said has to take her daughter to school every day and they have appointments. To move out, she would need to pack up all their belongings in a car, and she would need help packing.
She said the worry and the constant packing and unpacking are draining.
“It takes your time. It takes your energy. It takes your health. It greatly affects her. She’s away from her toys. She’s away from all of our learning materials,” she said about her daughter.
Levy, who is on disability, said she needs to have open heart surgery and wants to focus on getting in better condition so she can better heal from the surgery. She wants to spend time with her daughter, who is going to be three soon, rather than worrying about her living situation.
Ledge Light Health District Director Stephen Mansfield said to date, the health district has issued 23 public health orders to Related. Of these 10 were given conditional 30-day extensions based on information provided by the Related Companies, the owner of Branford Manor, due to access, contractor and other issues.
The conditions require the health district to be notified whenever sheetrock or other material is removed from dwelling units so it can inspect the material. In addition, tenants “shall be notified of the availability of temporary housing, either on or off site, for the duration of remediation activities that may produce dust, debris or other conditions that may be detrimental to the tenants.”
“When we are notified that the work is complete, we will inspect the units to assure they have complied with our public health orders,” Mansfield said.
According to Joseph J. Summers, building and zoning official for the city, the building department to date has received 53 complaints, and performed 41 inspections. The city issued 36 notices of violations to Related, and the city has received 34 responses from Related and closed three.
Related said in communications to Branford Manor residents that they will be giving residents regular status updates on repair work at the housing complex.
“We recognize both the inconvenience some of you are dealing with as well as concerns that many have expressed as we work to remediate moisture and mold issues at the property,” the management team at Branford Manor Apartments said in an Oct. 18 letter to residents.
The letter outlined that work includes replacing leaking pipes in hot water lines that were a source of some of the moisture that led to the mold issues.
In an Oct. 25 letter, the management team at Branford Manor Apartments said it has developed a plan to finish “all apartment remediation and other repairs,” by the end of February.
Branford Manor representatives said they have hired a resident advocacy firm, Housing Opportunities Unlimited, to coordinate communication with tenants if there is a need for them to relocate. They said relocation would depend on the scope of repairs but most residents will be able to stay in their apartments.
In a letter to City Mayor Keith Hedrick and Town Manager John Burt, posted on the town’s website, Related Vice Chairman Jeffrey Brodsky said Related and HOU have “significantly modified our approach to managing hotel stays where required to reduce confusion and stress on the resident.”