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Branford Manor residents speak out against mold

Groton — Residents of Branford Manor gathered Friday to raise concerns about ongoing mold issues and speak out against a plan to close their basements, which they say will make their living conditions worse.

Tenants are circulating a petition, in which they call the mold a huge health hazard and say that, rather than having mold problems fixed, Branford Manor Apartments will restrict access to their basements.  

The residents said they received letters that gave them about a month to remove their belongings from their basements. They were told that failure to comply "will result in legal action, at your expense." A second letter on May 5, which said the decision was made "to help ensure the health, safety and wellness of residents," extended the deadline to remove items to July 15.

About 20 residents told municipal officials and The Day on Friday afternoon at an outdoor gathering spot at Branford Manor that they were concerned about mold, asbestos and the loss of basement space. They said if the basements were closed, residents wouldn't be able to shut off water valves if there was a leak, ventilate the basement to prevent mold or store their sentimental items or their children's toys. 

Resident Latasha Burage, who has asthma and spoke to The Day last September about the mold in her apartment and how it was affecting her health, said some residents have many children in one unit and need the basement for storage. Some people clean their basements once or twice a month to keep the mold from growing.

"With the basements being locked, we can no longer tell when the mold is rising up," she said.

She also said residents have signed and agreed to move into a place with a storage unit, so the plan would violate their contracts.

Hedrick asked residents to describe the living conditions so he can help make them better. He said he's concerned about the mold, and he said he has spoken to Ledge Light Health District and will bring the residents' concerns to the health district. Hedrick was joined by City of Groton Deputy Mayor Gweneviere Depot and Robert Boris, who serves on the Groton Economic Development Commission and is running for state representative.

"I am here to help," Hedrick said, "and I will do everything that I can to help."

Branford Manor, which has 442 units in townhouse-style buildings, is a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-subsidized property. It is run by the private company Related Management Company, which is based in New York. The first residents moved into the development in 1971.

Residents reached out to The Day to hear their concerns, invited municipal officials to Friday's meeting with the newspaper, and publicized their concerns, petition and meeting on social media.

A U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development spokesperson said Friday that HUD is expediting an inspection of the housing development.

Resident Sandra Fetters said her eyes started watering two years ago, and she's been stricken with respiratory issues since August. She's been in and out of hospitals, and she keeps telling doctors that it's the mold. She said her family doesn't sleep upstairs anymore, and they're all down in the living room, with air purifiers everywhere.

She said it's unfair for people to think that the residents, because they live in low-income housing, deserve to be treated like this.

"We deserve to have healthy families," Fetters said. "We deserve to have a healthy, safe home to come home to, instead of a toxic environment that you're afraid of."

Branford Manor Apartments said in its second letter that the "presence of several leaks in the area requires us to take action. In addition there are other factors that have made the basements a hazard to residents, including access/egress impediments due to the quality of items stored and the use of the basement as an unauthorized living space." Branford Manor said the basements would be "closed indefinitely as we work to address the issue."

Resident Patience Clarke said that, while there are structural problems that need to be addressed, she solved a mold issue by continuously ventilating the space with a fan for a week. She said without access to her basement, it will become a "mold trap," because she keeps mold at bay by putting on a fan once in a while, moving items around and cleaning up any leaks from rain.

Resident Brenda Curry said that when she walks into her house, she can smell the mold with the basement door closed. Once the basement door is open, she said the smell is disgusting and the floors are disgusting from all the leaks that happened.

"They fixed the mold, they painted over it at one time, so my walls aren’t too bad looking but there's mold coming back now," she said.

Curry said she can't afford extra storage. She has boxes and totes in her basement, and she said she got emotional as she looked through items in her basement on Thursday: baby photos of her son, now 30, and Christmas ornaments from her late mother.

"I have gotten rid of so much stuff because of the mold smell in my totes and that's very emotional," she added.

Burage said she stayed in a hotel for two nights while her bathroom was repainted with a mold-retardant paint and a new fan was installed, but the mold is starting to grow back.

Christine Santos said she has three children and uses her basement for storage space. Her son was diagnosed with autism and doctors have filled out paperwork that he needs his own bedroom and to be put on an emergency list for a three-bedroom apartment, but she has not heard back yet. She said she cannot afford to go anywhere else.

She said she has no choice but to store whatever she can in her basement: "I cannot store it in my living space because then I'm going to get a notice saying that it's causing a safety hazard so that's my issue," she said.

Hedrick said he also will reach out to legislators. He spoke to Branford Manor management on Thursday and said he also plans to ask for a sit-down, including to talk about the mold issues.

"The health and safety of our residents continues to be our top priority as we take preventative measures to limit access to the basements following the discovery of some potentially hazardous conditions," a spokesperson for Branford Manor Apartments said in an emailed statement Friday. "We appreciate residents' patience during this time as we work to address the situation swiftly."

A U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development spokesperson said in an emailed statement that HUD "has received tenant complaints concerning the basement storage issue. We are working with Navigate, HUD’s contract administrator, to address these concerns. We will be ordering an expedited physical inspection of the development to ensure that the project and units meet physical condition standards."

According to HUD, management and occupancy reviews of Branford Manor conducted in May 2021 and October 2018 were rated as satisfactory.

Hedrick gave residents his card with his phone number and email address and said he will distribute a list of residents' specific concerns, collected Friday, to Ledge Light Health District.

Health district Director Stephen Mansfield said he reached out to Branford Manor management Thursday but has not yet received a response.

Mansfield said Ledge Light does not have any open cases related to Branford Manor and has not received complaints, in at least the past two months, about these types of concerns. But he said he is aware of the issues from recent social media posts and the petition and has been in contact with the mayor. He also encouraged people to reach out directly to Ledge Light with their concerns. 

"We're happy to do an investigation when we get that information," he said.

k.drelich@theday.com

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