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    Sunday, May 28, 2023

    Town, city review tax incentive agreement after residents complain about conditions at Branford Manor

    Groton — Branford Manor resident Christina Rotharmel said the mold in her former apartment began behind a switch plate in 2019, and by the time she moved out of the unit last summer, mold was everywhere.

    Rotharmel said she developed pulmonary arterial hypertension in 2020, which her doctor says is directly related to the mold, and spent 29 days in the intensive care unit in April 2021.

    She said she noticed black mold in the back of her kitchen cabinet, and when a maintenance worker took the cabinet off the wall at the end of June 2021, it was oozing with mold. When she moved out, mold was discovered lurking in more places, from inside the closet to behind pictures.

    She was moved to a new apartment at Branford Manor, but Rotharmel said the floors are buckling from moisture and mold.

    “I’m concerned about the mold,” said Rotharmel, who said she has filed a lawsuit against Branford Manor, but a court date has not yet been scheduled. “I think everybody’s concerned about the mold.”

    Related Affordable, which owns Branford Manor, said challenges over the pandemic contributed to current issues, and it is working to fix failing pipes, which led to mold and moisture issues, and bring in additional resources and staff to address issues and rebuild trust with residents.

    Ramonita Ramos, another Branford Manor resident, said she has complained about the conditions in her apartment for years, since Branford Manor underwent renovations, but her issues remain unresolved. She has peeling paint, holes in her walls from when baseboards were installed, and, in her kitchen sink, the hot water is cold and the cold water is hot. She said Branford Manor patched up a leak in her dining room about five years ago, but never painted over it, and now she has another water bubble next to it. Her bathroom sink is coming off the wall, and her bathtub was not caulked properly.

    She said she’s not aware of any mold issues in her own apartment, but the walls are thin, and neighbors on both sides of the apartment have mold issues. She said her ten-year-old son’s tongue swelled up twice in one year, and he has EpiPens. He has swelling in his arms and legs and had breathing issues and his doctors put him on a nasal spray and prednisone.

    She said Branford Manor plans to shut down access to their basements on July 15, and residents don’t have any extra storage. She said her mother passed away and she has her belongings in the basement.

    A group of more than a dozen residents also raised their concerns before the Town Council last week. They said they face problems with mold, maintenance issues, and unprofessionalism from management, and staff entering their units without permission. They also said some of the people who spoke out about their living conditions or attended meetings about issues have received notices to quit their units.

    “We no longer want to be afraid to speak out,” resident Latasha Burage, who spoke to The Day last year about mold issues at Branford Manor, told the council. “I will continue to stand up for the people.”

    Town Council questions if developer is in default of agreement

    The Town Council at its Committee of the Whole meeting on Tuesday discussed a tax incentive agreement that the town and city entered into with Branford Manor Preservation LP of New York in 2017. The developer agreed to invest $18.5 million in the approximately 441-unit subsidized housing development, located at 400 Shennecossett Road in the City of Groton, to build a new resident services building and “make and maintain exterior and interior repairs, upgrades, renovations and replacements” to the property. The developer is scheduled to receive tax abatements until 2037.

    Branford Manor is subsidized under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and residents typically pay part of their monthly rent, based on their income, and HUD pays the rest under Section 8 of the federal housing act.

    Town Attorney Eileen Duggan said the agreement outlines that the town or the city, or both, could send a notice of default to the developer that a violation has occurred and give the developer at least 30 days to resolve the issues. The town would have to ensure that it had objective, clear evidence, and ending the agreement would presumably involve litigation, she said.

    Councilors asked a series of questions and expressed concerns over the conditions. Some indicated they supported holding the developer in default, while others had concerns that ending the agreement would take away some of the leverage the town has.

    “I’m disgusted. I’m overwhelmed. My children go to school with these children. I drop children off in that neighborhood, and the levels of health concerns, between cancer, COPD, respiratory issues, asthma, ADD, ADHD, from mold exposure, it’s no wonder,” said Town Councilor Portia Bordelon, who also expressed concerns about the condition of the playgrounds.

    Town Councilor Aundré Bumgardner said the issues, especially the mold, and the photos that residents showed at the last council meeting were deplorable.

    Town Councilor Melinda Cassiere said she agreed that the conditions being reported are “horrifying and inhumane.” But she said her fear is that if the company loses the tax incentive agreement, it would no longer be bound by stipulations in the agreement.

    “I also am pretty taken back and horrified by what I’ve seen from the pictures and hearing residents in our community talk about the conditions they’re living in,” said Town Councilor Rachael Franco.

    Councilors expressed concerns about a lack of social services being provided to residents, and asked for residents to be put in hotels while mold was being remediated and for documentation of the $18.5 million invested in Branford Manor.

    Matthew Finkle, the president of Related Affordable, the company that owns Branford Manor, publicly apologized for the conditions.

    “I know residents are frustrated,” he said. “I know they’re angry.”

    Finkle said he planned to apologize to residents directly for the conditions that some of them are experiencing. He said the company has a plan to address the issues: “I’m here to take responsibility for that,” he said. “We can as a company, and we will, absolutely do better.”

    Finkle said that Branford Manor typically does unit inspections every year, sometimes twice a year, but was not able to during the pandemic. He said the inspections reveal issues and allow the company to generate a list of work orders to be completed. He said the company faced challenges, including the “Great Resignation,” a lack of available contractors and people willing to work in property management, and a lack of availability of building materials.

    He said one of the problems inherited from prior ownership was failing pipes. Zack Simmons, another representative of Related Affordable, said the origin of the mold and moisture issues is 9-year-old PEX pipes in the basements that have begun to crack and fail prematurely in some areas. He said the issues increased over the last year and half or two years because they were not able to inspect the basements.

    “That being said, we are fully aware of the issue and we have replaced and continue to replace piping and are doing full inspections of the piping,” Simmons said.

    Finkle said Related wants to find a solution that's a compromise on basement access: “We want to be able to have a resolution where residents can still use them for their intended use.”

    A HUD spokesperson said last month that HUD was expediting an inspection of Branford Manor after receiving complaints from tenants. The spokesperson said this week that Branford Manor hired a contractor that completed an assessment of potential mold and moisture issues in all 144 units with basements and will formulate a remediation plan once the results are received. Branford Manor’s other steps include making plumbing repairs and replacements to prevent future moisture accumulation in the basements, install leak detection sensors, and perform quarterly inspections.

    “Are you aware that retaliating against residents who speak out with notices to quit is illegal and will you be rescinding those notices to quit?” Town Mayor Juan Melendez Jr. asked Related at Tuesday's meeting.

    Brian Mayer, president of Related Management, said Related intends to work with all 28 residents who received a notice to quit, which he said is essentially a lease violation. Finkle denied any retaliation.

    Related representatives said that they have been compliant with the agreement, with the exception of not being able to provide some of the social services during the pandemic, and plan to work on rebuilding the relationship with residents so they feel comfortable reporting issues. Related plans to hire additional personnel for Branford Manor, and playgrounds are being fixed. Related, which has a nonprofit foundation, plans to be in touch about helping a youth sports program in Groton.

    The Council, along with City of Groton Mayor Keith Hedrick, met in executive session to further discuss the issues.

    Town Manager John Burt said Wednesday that the town is compiling a list of the questions the Council asked and Related answered.

    “This will be the basis of a letter detailing the discussion and the Town Council’s expectations to the owner concerning items that need to be done,” Burt said. “We will work with the City of Groton to try to ensure we are both on the same page since we are both parties to the Tax Incentive Agreement. The Town takes the complaints from the Branford Manor tenants extremely seriously and are working closely with Mayor Hedrick and the City to resolve the issues.”

    Burt said this is not a letter of default, but all options remain on the table.

    Hedrick said he met with residents in early May and since then has had meetings with residents and meetings with Branford Manor management. He said he sent a list of mold and other issues identified by residents to Ledge Light Health District. He said his focus is on the safety or residents and their families, and he also has asked Branford Manor to reconsider the loss of basement access.

    Hedrick said he is continuing to work with local Branford Manor management and with senior management of Related, to address mold and maintenance issues and to ensure that notices of quits are not issued in retaliation for people speaking up.

    “All their actions are being evaluated for the town and the city to determine whether or not Related Companies are in default,” Hedrick said.

    "The health and safety of our residents is always our top priority," a spokesperson for Related said in an emailed statement. "Over the course of the pandemic, there have been a series of challenges that have greatly contributed to the current issues that have been raised at Branford Manor. We appreciate the opportunity to lay out to Groton elected leaders our detailed plans and comprehensive strategy to rectify these issues as we bring additional resources and new staff in to ensure the work is done efficiently and effectively. This plan is being communicated directly to residents and other stakeholders as well."

    But residents said trust issues remain, which Branford Manor management also acknowledged and said it would work to rebuild the relationship between management and tenants.

    “We have a lot of trust issues, and it’s going to take a very, very long time to rebuild that,” Burage said.

    Shauntee Duzant, a former Branford Manor resident, said she moved out when new management came in and her monthly rent increased by $400. She said she had safety concerns and also faced unprofessionalism from staff. She did not have a basement, but she had mold in her bathroom that she kept at bay with cleaning.

    Duzant said her daughter developed asthma at six months old, and since moving, her daughter, now 12, has never had the complications she had while living at Branford Manor. Duzant is now wondering if her daughter’s condition could have been caused by mold.

    “I think they’re very brave for speaking out and sticking together and trying to fight for their human and tenant rights, and I think that it gives hope for a better quality of life for them and a better quality of life for anyone that has to move into low income housing in the future and the next generation because it can be anyone,” Duzant said. “Things happen in life, and the next thing you know, you can’t work and you need somewhere that you can afford, so I think they’re very brave and I’m very proud of them.”


    Ledge Light Health District provided to The Day three complaints about Branford Manor that Ledge Light worked on and then closed after the conditions of the units were satisfactory.

    Ledge Light Deputy Director Jennifer Muggeo said there are still open complaints and it’s an evolving situation in terms of making contact with people and making site visits. “We encourage anybody who’s experiencing any concerns with their housing to give us a call,” she said. She added that it’s Ledge Light’s impression that there may be people who have concerns that have not contacted Ledge Light to initiate a complaint.

    A closed complaint references that Ledge Light met with Branford Management to discuss a mold remediation plan for all buildings and management said that “PEX piping used for the hot water lines under each building in the basements and crawlspaces was likely “a bad batch” from the manufacturer and are developing “pin holes and cracks” and management plans to replace the piping.

    Hedrick provided The Day with a list of complaints from about 18 residents, including mold and leaking pipes, cracks in the ceiling, maintenance issues, and concerns about the planned loss of basements. Ledge Light closed some complaints, some remain under investigation, some are pending contact with the resident, and some do not pertain to Ledge Light, according to the spreadsheet.


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