Groton to hold Branford Manor owner in default of tax incentive agreement
Groton ― The Town Council on Tuesday unanimously voted to hold the owner of Branford Manor, a federally subsidized housing development in the city, in default of a tax incentive agreement, a move intended to spur the owner to swiftly address mold and other problems in apartments.
Residents held signs during the meeting at the Town Hall Annex that said “Let Us Breathe,” “Fix it Now,” and “Do Your Job HUD.” A boy held a sign that said “When I have an asthma attack I feel like a fish with no water.”
At one point, after confusion over the wording of a motion, there was a verbal exchange and shouting from some audience members and councilors.
According to the Council’s resolution, Ledge Light Health District has issued, since Sept. 26, at least 16 public health orders identifying a violation of the state public health code at the about 440-unit Branford Manor, and the health district is continuing to address complaints and inspect for potential additional violations. Since then, the city has issued “numerous violations of its rental housing code” and also is continuing its work.
Branford Manor Preservation LP, a subsidiary of New York City based Related Companies, has a 30 day “cure period” following the compliance date for each violation, according to Town Manager John Burt. If the company doesn’t comply, the council will look at all the factors and decide whether to terminate the agreement.
The City Council Committee of the Whole on Tuesday moved to hold Related in default, with a vote slated for Monday’s Council meeting, said City Mayor Keith Hedrick.
Hedrick, Town Mayor Juan Melendez, Jr., and Burt announced last week their recommendation to hold Branford Manor Preservation, L.P. in default of the agreement, signed in 2017 among the town, city and Branford Manor Preservation, after residents continued to complain about mold and maintenance issues and said the living conditions are negatively affecting their health.
The 20-year agreement provides an annual tax abatement of about $500,000 in exchange for the company maintaining “in good order and repair” the subsidized apartment complex.
The company was required to invest “$18.5 million to construct a new 3,000 square feet resident services building; and maintain exterior and interior repairs, upgrades, renovations and replacements to the property including buildings and personal property.” .
Ledge Light Health District Director Stephen Mansfield said the district is drafting nine additional public health orders and has a team of community health workers going door-to-door to ask tenants if they want to report concerns.
“Our singular focus continues to be taking the aggressive measures necessary to ensure that every remaining issue at Branford Manor is addressed so that residents feel safe and comfortable in their homes,” a spokesperson for Branford Manor Apartments said in a statement. “Certified, third-party, licensed industrial hygienists have inspected every apartment they have been allowed access to by residents at Branford Manor and we will continue to work in good faith with the City and Town of Groton on the comprehensive strategy to ensure all of the necessary repairs are completed as quickly as possible.”
Councilor Portia Bordelon spoke about mold, unsafe stairs, unusable bathtubs, and a lack of resident services. She called for changing the 60-day period in the initial motion to 30 days, a change the town manger and councilors supported.
“As it was stated, they’ve had months. They’ve had five years,” Bordelon said of the company. “They’ve been given millions of dollars. People are suffering.”
Councilor Aundré Bumgardner submitted a referral on May 25 to hold Related in default and said the company had 139 days to fix issues. Bumgardner thanked every mother, aunt and grandmother who came to meetings since May to share their stories about their living conditions.
“No child should have to be subjected to that,” he said. “No senior citizen in our community should be subjected to that.”
The town and city had sent a letter to Related outlining expectations, after a Committee of the Whole meeting in June.
Councilor Melinda Cassiere said this has never been about the believability of residents: “I am a mother and I understand wanting safety for your children,” she said
Cassiere said the Council had to ensure it is doing its due diligence.
Councilor Rachael Franco called the issues “absolutely horrendous.” She also expressed concerns over the potential of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development holding Related in default and where tenants would go if the company isn’t given some time to fix the issue or doesn’t fix it.
“I’m truly scared for them,” Franco said, “So with that, I support the people of Branford Manor. Nobody should live in horrible conditions like this, but also we need to think of how are we going to actually solve this.”
Councilor Scott Westervelt said he fully supports the motion, but also has some concerns about long-term potential impacts on residents.
Melendez said Related’s funding to provide some Branford Manor residents with hotels may be running out at some point. The council is slated to vote at its next meeting on establishing a fund that could be used to cover costs for displaced town residents.
State Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, in letters on Sept. 5 and last week, called on U.S. Rep Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, and U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Chris Murphy, D-Conn, to request the Office of the Inspector General to audit the HUD funding that the Branford Manor owner has received.
Blumenthal said in a statement that he is continuing to work with the town and HUD to “press for immediate improvements and swift relief for the residents of Branford Manor.”
Murphy said in a statement that “we’re working to ensure the Department of Housing and Urban Development conducts a thorough, speedy inspection of every unit at Branford Manor and the property owner implements all recommendations in a timely manner.”
Courtney said in a statement that, from the federal perspective, “the biggest flaw that has been exposed is the lack of strong enforcement tools or a clear national standard for mold safety in HUD supported housing.” He said he’s exploring “regulatory and legislative options to prevent issues like what is happening at Branford Manor from occurring in the future.”
A HUD spokesperson said in a statement that Related has been assessing units and began remediation on several apartments, with more to follow.
“HUD continues to work in concert with the city to have Related increase the speed of the remediation,” the spokesperson continued. “Because the owner is working to address the situation, the Department considers the owner in compliance. HUD is monitoring the situation closely and should circumstances change the status of the owner will be evaluated at that time.”