Blumenthal visits Branford Manor, calls on HUD to revamp inspection process
Groton ― Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., visited Branford Manor on Wednesday to call for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to overhaul its inspection process and spur the owner of the federally subsidized housing development to quickly address residents’ complaints of mold and unsafe living conditions.
People held signs at the entrance of Branford Manor before the news conference on Wednesday morning with statements such as “Clean air is a basic human right” and “We Cannot Breathe. Need Action Now.”
“It’s really time to just step up and get the work done,” said resident Latasha Burage, who has been living in a hotel since the early summer and is one of the leaders of the tenants’ union that is being formed.
“People need to be put back in their homes. Children need to feel safe back in their own beds, instead of living out of suitcases, not knowing when you’re going to come back home,” she said.
During the news conference, Blumenthal commended the town and city for holding Related Companies, the owner of Branford Manor, in default of a 30-year tax incentive agreement, but said action is needed "to remediate and renovate these apartments to eliminate the very serious health hazard, and the buck stops with HUD.“
Blumenthal said he and Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., have submitted a letter to HUD to put pressure on the federal agency to hold the owner and managers of Branford Manor accountable. Blumenthal also said he planned to write directly to the owner of Related Companies.
Blumenthal criticized HUD’s standards and criteria because he said inspections can be done “without uncovering the real problem and measuring the health hazard.”
In June, Branford Manor received a passing score of 70c* on HUD’s Real Estate Assessment Center criteria, and Blumenthal called the criteria “totally disconnected to reality.”
Properties are scored between 0 and 100, and anything above 60 is considered passing, according to HUD.
Blumenthal called for HUD to completely revamp its rules to specifically look for mold and talk to tenants. He said he heard HUD will release new rules that measure mold.
“We need action now,” Blumenthal said.
Blumenthal stressed that it’s critical that repairs are made at Branford Manor.
“The rental market is so tight here you can’t just say tear down the whole place,” he said. “They have to renovate and repair.”
HUD issued a statement Wednesday evening that it is continuing “to monitor the situation at Branford Manor closely to ensure Related is addressing the problems that have come to light in recent months.”
“HUD is doing everything possible to ensure that all issues are resolved and to preserve the 441 affordable units,” the statement said.
HUD said it has continued efforts to develop and implement new standards, called the National Standards for the Physical Inspection of Real Estate. HUD said the “model prioritizes health, safety, and functional defects over appearance,” “supports the adoption of sound, year-round maintenance practices,” and introduces resident surveys.
Resident Sandra Fetters, who is living in a hotel, said during the protest that she came out to support the right to live in habitable housing that is not toxic. She said she can’t put her kids back in that situation or herself because she has hypersensitivity pneumonitis and her kids have health problems.
“Without the support of everybody, this push would have never happened and it’s so horrible that we have to fight for basic human rights,” Fetters said. “Just because we’re low income doesn’t mean that we don’t deserve to have safe, healthy housing.”
A spokesperson for Branford Manor Apartments said in a statement Wednesday evening that: “Our entire focus is on taking the aggressive measures necessary to ensure that the current issues at Branford Manor are addressed so that residents feel safe and comfortable in their homes. We will continue to stay in constant communication with HUD, the City and Town of Groton including the mayor, local officials and agencies, as well as state officials, regarding the comprehensive strategy and progress to ensure all of the necessary repairs are completed as quickly as possible.”
Local, state officials say support needed
Officials, including State Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, City Mayor Keith Hedrick, City Deputy Mayor Gweneviere Depot, Town Manager John Burt, Town Mayor Juan Melendez, Jr. and Town Councilors Portia Bordelon and Aundré Bumgardner, who is running for the 41st House District, and Robert Boris, the vice chair of the town’s Economic Development Commission who also is running for the 41st district, attended the news conference.
Hedrick said Blumenthal’s help is needed to put some additional pressure on HUD to force Related to move forward and create a safe living environment for the families.
Somers asked Blumenthal to request the Office of Inspector General to do a full financial audit of the HUD funding Related receives. Blumenthal called an audit a good idea, but said “it won’t eliminate the mold” and action is needed now.
Bordelon, who organized the protest, said there needs to be a state regulation calling mold a health concern. Blumenthal said he would speak to the governor about that.
“The clock is ticking, and it is time to act now,” added Bumgardner. “We cannot breathe, and it is time that Branford Manor residents have the support they so deserve.”
Melendez thanked the residents for speaking out in the beginning when under threat of the eviction notices, and called it a “brave act.”
Blumenthal said he would take action in the case of any retaliation by a landlord.
Melendez acknowledged the work the town manager and city mayor did for months to get Related to put together a timeline, which he said Related consistently failed to do and ended with the town and the city holding Related in default of the tax agreement. Melendez thanked Blumenthal and Murphy because he said there’s only so much that can be done on a local level.
“With the help of Senator Blumenthal, we will continue to get more progress done,” said Hedrick.
Burt said he and Hedrick have been upset about the uncertainty some Branford Manor residents who are staying in hotels are facing about not knowing if their stay is going to be extended. He said he and Hedrick have asked Related for a longer-term commitment for residents to stay in hotels.