Residents say New London housing for seniors, disabled is unsafe
New London ― Three women, one sitting on a walker, lit cigarettes together earlier this summer in the courtyard at Williams Park Apartments, where they all live.
They leaned in close to exchange whispers of being attacked by fellow residents. They showed pictures of mold growing on their ceilings and passed sticky notes with names of neighbors who might be in danger.
These courtyard smoke breaks, eventually attended by reporters and politicians, were discussions of how the senior and disabled residents of Williams Park are in trouble.
About 20 residents have claimed the New London Housing Authority makes detrimental decisions without consulting them that result in unsafe living conditions.
The six-member housing authority manages four affordable housing buildings in New London with federal and state funding, including Williams Park Apartments, an eight-story building at 127 Hempstead St.
The four buildings house a total of 309 senior and disabled residents who receive rental assistance.
This past February, the housing authority’s Board of Commissioners voted to retain employees hired by its outside management company, Imagineers, after the management company announced it would not renew its contract to manage the housing authority properties.
After months of repeated interview requests, three housing authority commissioners agreed to an interview about the residents’ claims of abuse and neglect.
During that interview, Executive Director Kolisha Kedron shouted. Property Manager Avalon Mack cried. Chairman Candace Devendittis crossed her arms and rolled her eyes.
One of the housing authority’s main concerns was the lack of state and federal funding to repair the old buildings, Kedron said.
She added that Williams Park passed its latest Housing of Urban Development building inspection.
However, these inspection results didn’t ease Williams Park residents’ concerns about mold.
“We don’t like to say the ‘m’ word. We don’t have mold. It’s mildew,” said Mack.
The “m word” caused sinus infections and metallic tastes in Edwin Alvarez’s mouth throughout his 10 years living in Williams Park, he said. His doctor sent a letter to the housing authority asking it to improve mold conditions for the sake of his safety, he said.
Even after the doctor sent the note and he was moved into a different unit, Alvarez said he inhales a prescribed medicinal nasal spray every day for his sinus infections. During a recent visit to his apartment, he pointed to mold growing in the shower and on the walls.
“I’d complain, complain, complain, and they never did anything about it,” Alvarez said about his health complications from mold. “People need to know that what’s going on in this building is not good.”
The “m word” also deteriorated resident Jon Persson’s shower, causing the ceiling of the unit below his to fall on a fellow resident’s head in August, he said.
With deteriorating building conditions across its four properties, the housing authority cannot afford to lose maintenance staff, said state Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London, who visited Williams Park throughout this summer.
Despite this, maintenance worker Justin Taylor said he was fired in July for what Taylor believes to be retaliation for reporting building concerns to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Another maintenance worker quit in August, Nolan said.
“The people living in those buildings, they suffer,” Taylor said. “Each day they’re worrying about mold or bed bugs or bloody mattresses.”
Taylor said he discovered a bloody mattress in an overflowing dumpster at the George Washington Carver Apartments at 202 Colman St., also managed by the housing authority, in July. Blood from a stabbing nights before had stained the pink-patterned bed sheets in red, he said.
“As it flopped out, I immediately realized it was covered in blood, maggots, and flies,” he said.
Taylor, who maintained all four housing authority buildings, said he reported the “bio hazardous” mattress and his black mold-related health issues to OSHA. Weeks later, the Housing Authority fired him for “unexcused absences,” Taylor said.
Kedron had no comment on the OSHA investigation.
“Those are the jobs that take care of the people that are in need of being taken care of,” Nolan said of Taylor’s termination. “That can’t be a neglected place.”
“They’re watching you on the cameras, you know,” residents warned Nolan when he visited Williams Park in mid-August after receiving “worried” calls about building conditions in July, he said.
Knocking on apartment doors, Nolan found some residents were content living in Williams Park. However, many unsatisfied residents told him they feared retaliation if they spoke with him near the building’s security cameras, he said.
Kedron said she “absolutely does not” retaliate against residents.
“I don’t know if those are safety cameras or surveillance cameras,” resident Belinda Jurzyk said. “The cameras don’t work when we need protection, but somehow work when they need to keep an eye on us.”
When management sees undesirable behavior from residents, they use the building’s fire alarm speakers to broadcast scoldings and announcements into the walls of each apartment, said resident Mark Hayden.
The “Big Brother”-sounding lectures about residents’ illegal parking trigger Hayden’s post traumatic stress disorder and make him feel as if he’s living in a group home, he said.
“I feel helpless. Absolutely helpless,” said Hayden, who has lived in Williams Park for 13 years. “It announces their presence as authoritarians to violate my space. I didn’t consent to that.”
Noise-canceling headphones, breathing techniques, and filing a dozen complaints to the housing authority and New London Police Department haven’t helped Hayden cope with the fire alarm intercom announcements, he said.
“For now, I just sit and cry,” Hayden said.
To ease retaliation fears, Nolan said he listened to residents’ concerns at Muddy Waters Cafe and New London Eats downtown. Nolan mentioned some of those concerns to U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., he said.
“I would be worried that some of them would come under attack just for talking with me,” Nolan said of residents and maintenance staff. “I was concerned about that.”
The residents complained that Kedron is hostile and disrespectful and openly violates the contract that requires her to work full time.
Kedron’s employment contract issues her a yearly salary of $113,000 under the condition she “devote on a full-time basis her entire working time, energies, and best efforts to the performance of her duties.”
The contract, obtained through a Freedom of Information request, prohibits Kedron from engaging in business activities or financial interests outside of the housing authority.
She works as a real estate agent for Stonington Realty, and posts about the job on her real estate-devoted Instagram account.
Kedron had no comment and did not respond to calls or email messages seeking further information about housing authority finances and other issues.
Police protection dwindles
Despite 584 safety concern calls from those in Williams Park Apartments to the New London Police Department in the past five years, police protection for the building is dwindling, according to the department’s records.
Patrol officers used to conduct two or three non-mandated building checks a day in Williams Park Apartments, according to New London Police Department records. A total of 1,031 building checks in 2018 dropped to three total building checks so far this year. Last year, there were five.
“There’s police matters and there’s housing matters,” said Mack, the property manager, about the housing authority’s ability to protect residents. “We are not police and we cannot arrest people.”
Jurzyk, a resident of more than 10 years, said she complained to the housing authority about a man who lunged at her and threatened her while she sat in the apartment courtyard in October.
The attacker jumped so close to her that she felt his spit on her face and he blocked her walker so she couldn’t stand up, she said, adding that she called police after the incident and now has a restraining order against the attacker.
Six months prior, the attacker began harassing Jurzyk and attempted to buzz into her apartment multiple times, she said. Upon repeatedly reporting him to the housing authority, Jurzyk was told it was a “he said, she said” situation and nothing could be done about it, she said.
“It’s a mix of mentally disabled and physically disabled,” Jurzyk, who is in her 70s, said of Williams Park Apartments. “People who are more likely to be set off versus people who may not be able to protect themselves.”
The man has since moved out of the apartments, she said.
Fifteen residents, many using canes and walkers, gathered in the Williams Park community room for a safety seminar with the New London Police Department in June. Officers distributed magnets and business cards with the message: “Help fight crime” to each of the residents sitting in plastic chairs underneath ceilings stained from water leaks.
Police Chief Brian Wright explained how “each person must be responsible for the space and safety” of the building ― while a hearing-disabled resident held his phone in the air, reading the chief’s “see something, say something” mantra from a live transcription application.
The residents say they can’t always defend themselves.
Unfit to fend for herself
Earlier on the morning of April 13, Williams Park resident Priscilla Rodrigues, 65, was walked to a public park bench and left to “fend for herself” by the housing authority after being evicted from the building for “several failed room inspections,” according to a police incident report.
Due to a mental disability, Rodrigues’s Sound Health Community conservator was legally responsible for her housing matters, according to the report. The housing authority evicted Rodrigues and placed her outside on a day when her conservator was absent, the report said.
“That was disgraceful. Not only disgraceful, it was illegal,” housing authority Treasurer Nancy Cole said about the eviction of Rodrigues without a conservator present.
Two police officers determined Rodrigues was “unfit to fend for herself,” and took her to the department’s lobby “so she could at least have somewhere to stay,” according to the report.
“Conservator or no conservator, we treat everyone the same. They are held to the same lease standards as everyone else,” Kedron said about evicting residents without their conservators present.
City Councilor Reona Dyess, who saw a video of Rodrigues on the park bench that had been posted on Facebook by local resident Keith Mutch, said she immediately went to the apartments to check on her.
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” said Dyess. “She wasn’t coherent. I don’t know if she understood what was taking place. I’m surprised the staff let it get to that extreme level.”
Dyess said she wished the housing authority had reached out to the City Council’s human resource program before moving forward with the eviction in that manner.
Rodrigues now lives in a Norwich assisted living facility, said housing authority Tenant Commissioner Jon Persson, who lives in Williams Park. Although she’s safe now, residents still feel a “threat” from that day, he said.
“That was a little message to us,” Persson said. “Arguably the most vulnerable person in our building was put outside on the bench. It could be me next.”
The topics that Devendittis rolled her eyes at during the recent interview are “more insidious and toxic” to those who live under collapsing ceilings and within moldy walls, said Cole. Some housing authority leaders “don’t feel it’s their responsibility” to help them, she said.
“All the drama that’s being drummed up, it’s just high rise living,” Mack said in tears during the meeting. “It doesn’t reflect the quality of our staff.”
Even if typical “high rise living” includes mold-related illnesses, long-term harassment, and retaliation fears, the senior and disabled population of New London can’t handle it anymore, said former Housing Authority Commissioner Kathleen Mitchell, whose son and friends live in Williams Park Apartments.
“These are some of the most vulnerable members of our society. Look how we treat them,” Mitchell said.