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Tenants say they're tired of mold, maintenance issues at Branford Manor

Groton — Latasha Burage’s apartment at Branford Manor is decorated with family photos, golden fans, flowers and signs with inspirational words hanging on the walls.

But the apartment also has something that Burage desperately wants to get rid of: mold growing in the bathroom, the top of her and her daughter’s bedroom doors and in the basement.

Burage moved into her apartment about 15 years ago; about eight months later, she started noticing black spots in her bathroom. She tried to clean them, but they kept growing back.

She said the management has sent people to bleach and wipe down the mold and then paint, but the mold continues to grow back.

Burage, who had asthma as a child, didn’t have the issues as an adult until she moved into the subsidized housing complex and began having respiratory issues and back-to-back sinus infections. She later went to an allergist and found out that one of her top triggers is mold, followed by smoke — which she said she smells despite that it's banned in the development — and pet hair.

“It just gets to a point where I’m tired of being sick,” Burage said. “I’m tired of the asthma stuff. I’m tired of the steroid inhalers. I’m tired of having to use the nebulizers. I’m just tired of all these things, and I’m asking for help.”

She's not alone — several residents at Branford Manor stepped forward to speak out in the hopes of being heard and having their living conditions improve.

Burage said mold is not the only problem she’s facing. She said some issues stem from a renovation project several years ago. She said the apartment’s back door doesn’t properly reach the bottom of the ground, so she lays a blanket to keep insects from coming in. She put tape on windows because they didn’t close all the way.

She said cracks are typically plugged up with spray foam, and she has placed a poster to cover a hole in her basement wall.

Burage said this wasn’t the plan for her life, but it’s the hand she was dealt. She used to work at Pfizer and in group homes, but developed lupus after having a baby and is on disability. While people tell her to move, she said there are few options in the region for low-income housing.

Former residents speak out

Kim Fisher, a former Branford Manor tenant who moved to Virginia for family reasons about three years ago, said one of her main concerns was mold. Within a month or two of living at Branford Manor, she started seeing mold around her tub. She tried to keep everything dry and bleach the area, but she noticed she wasn't the only one having a problem, as she heard from people living in other buildings that they also had mold.

When her bathroom was reconstructed, Fisher said a new wall was put up with new paint, but she said there was still mold behind it.

She said she experienced problems breathing through her nose and thought she was just suffering from regular allergies. But later an allergist determined Fisher was allergic to mold. She now realizes it most likely was mold that was bothering her.

Now, she said she feels “a breath of fresh air” not living around mold.

Former Branford Manor tenant Josephine Spinnato said a wall in her basement had to be knocked down last year due to asbestos and black mold, and her neighbors with an adjoining basement were sent to a hotel.

She said the mold in her basement only got worse after that. “I had to just give up my lease because of the fact that we couldn’t breathe,” she said. “Every time we walked into the house, you could smell it.”

Spinnato said she and her 8-year-old daughter, 6-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son had an ongoing cough, wheezing and chest pain. They moved to New London last month, and she said they are probably feeling about 50% better.

Minerva Ortiz, who lives at Branford Manor with her 13-year-old granddaughter, said she has noticed the grass not getting cut properly and garbage piling up in the parking lot to the point where she had to pick up diapers and sanitary napkins.

She said she thinks the issues have only gotten worse during the coronavirus pandemic. She also pointed out that the management office has been closed to residents since the start of the pandemic.

She and other residents said they want to be treated respectfully and for the issues with their units to be addressed.

History of mold complaints

Tenants first moved into Branford Manor Apartments, situated on nearly 38 acres of land at 37 Mather Avenue in the City of Groton, in 1971.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-subsidized property, with 442 units in about 47 townhouse buildings, is one of HUD’s largest developments in New England, according to Rhonda M. Siciliano, public affairs officer for HUD.

With HUD-subsidized developments, typically a resident pays a portion of the rent based on their income and then, under Section 8, HUD subsidizes the remaining portion of the rent owed to the owner. HUD pays Branford Manor a subsidy for all but one of the units, Siciliano said.

In 2017, the town and city executed a tax incentive agreement with Branford Manor Preservation LP of New York, in which the developer agreed to invest $18.5 million in the property for a new approximately 3,000-square-foot resident services building and a management office and “to make and maintain exterior and interior repairs, renovations and replacements” to the property. The property management company is Related Management Company LP, according to the agreement.

The agreement established the town tax rate for Branford Manor at 22.36 mills and then raised the total amount of taxes by 3% per year for 20 years.

Groton City Mayor Keith Hedrick said questions of mold had come up during the renovation project, and the building official at the time identified some issues. Hedrick said the company had to rip out and replace some of the cabinets and put in some new plasterboard and address the source of the mold, believed to be piping that was leaking.

Hedrick said recently he has heard a couple of complaints about mold issues, and reached out to state Rep. Joe de la Cruz, D-Groton, and they both contacted Ledge Light Health District.

Ledge Light Health Director Stephen Mansfield said the health district has an open complaint for mold at Branford Manor.

The complaint, which originated in June, was from another resident reporting that a broken pipe in an apartment was causing mold, with two other neighbors also reporting buckled floors, mold, warped light switch plates and a musty odor.

According to the complaint form, Branford Manor management later reported that the broken pipe was fixed, floors and cabinets will be replaced, and the management company is looking into professional air testing services.

Tenants in one of the units temporarily were moved to a hotel, but the complaint later was reopened when the tenant continued to complain of mold. The management company hired an air quality consultant company for air testing, and a restoration company “to go into the crawl space below the building, remove the insulation, clean the joists, and apply a layer of mold and mildew inhibitor." A remediation specialist also was hired to replace any necessary flooring, walls and cabinetry. A status update of the work is planned for next month.

"We take any complaints that are brought to the attention of management seriously, and we are working diligently to ensure that our residents' concerns are addressed," a spokesperson from Branford Manor Apartments said in a statement. "The health, wellness, and comfort of our residents remains our top priority and we appreciate their patience while all repairs are made."

Branford Manor building maintenance staff also have created a preventive maintenance schedule for doors and the piping system, among other issues.

“HUD is not aware of complaints from residents regarding living conditions such as mold or asbestos, or shoddy workmanship on the rehabilitation work,” Siciliano from HUD said in a statement. “There have been some complaints from tenants as would be expected in a property this size, but none concerning those matters — mostly concerning routine maintenance or tenant recertification issues.”

“HUD is committed to ensuring safe and sanitary living conditions for residents,” she added. “If residents have concerns regarding living conditions they are encouraged to work with their local property management team to resolve these issues. If residents are unable to resolve any issues at the local level they can reach out to their local HUD office for assistance.”

De la Cruz, who forwarded the complaint about mold to Ledge Light, said that when a resident came to him with an issue several years ago, he had encouraged residents to form a tenants association. He had introduced a bill in 2016 that would have required a space at housing developments like Branford Manor to be set aside for a tenants association. While that bill did not pass, he said he is considering submitting a modified version this year.

k.drelich@theday.com

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