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    Housing Solutions Lab
    Tuesday, February 20, 2024
     

    Branford Manor mold problem persists; multiple fixes underway

     
     
    Christina Carrieri shows a window where water came in during a recent rainstorm at her Branford Manor in Groton Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023. She recently moved back home after six weeks of remediation and said her basement has already flooded. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Christina Carrieri empties the dehumidifier in the basement of her Branford Manor in Groton Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023. She recently moved back home after six weeks of remediation and said her basement has already flooded. She has to empty the dehumidifier every few days. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Sandra Fetters cooks dinner for her family in their Mystic hotel suite Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023. She has been living in the suite with her two daughters and their three cats for over 250 days due to mold in their Branford Manor apartment. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Emily Fetters, 18, talks with her mother Sandra as they cook dinner in their Mystic hotel suite Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023. The family, which also includes her sister and three cats, have been living in the suite for over 250 days due to mold in their Branford Manor apartment. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Emily Fetters, 18, draws on an iPad in the Mystic hotel suite she shares with her mother, sister, and their three cats Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023. The family has been living in the suite for over 250 days due to mold in their Branford Manor apartment. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Mold is seen on the bathroom windowsill of a temporary apartment where Sara Alvarez and her family live at Branford Manor in Groton Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023. She was moved to the temporary apartment, which is already showing visible mold, while her home is being remediated for mold. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Sara Alvarez pauses as she talks about some of the health and mold issues her family has experienced at Branford Manor in Groton Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023. She is currently in a temporary apartment at the complex while her home is being remediated for mold. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Sara Alvarez shows the storage availability in her temporary apartment at Branford Manor in Groton Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023. She is currently in a temporary apartment while her home is being remediated for mold. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Groton ― Christina Carrieri’s Branford Manor apartment, recently remediated for mold, has new piping and a new window in the basement. She has a basement dehumidifier that she empties out every two days and a new exhaust fan in her bathroom. A moldy area by her bathtub has been removed and replaced.

    But Carrieri said after she and her son moved back in after six weeks of renovations, the basement recently flooded. And she thinks the moldy area in her bathroom, which was removed and replaced by new Sheetrock, wasn’t the overhaul that was needed.

    “I’m honestly waiting for the mold to just come through the closet in the bathroom,” she said. She said she wants her apartment to be fully and properly repaired.

    Residents have complained about mold and living conditions at the approximately 441-unit federally subsidized housing development located in the city and owned by Branford Manor Preservation, a subsidiary of Related Companies of New York. Multiple efforts are underway on the state, federal, and local level to address the issue.

    The town and city councils in the fall voted to hold Related in default of a tax incentive agreement, citing at least 16 violations of the state public health code and about 37 violations of rental housing code. Ledge Light Health District has 31 open complaints about Branford Manor, and the city has 41 open rental housing code complaints.

    Legislators are proposing legislation to address mold, and a group of 16 residents filed a lawsuit against Related.

    Related has undertaken a project to reduce moisture, remediate apartments with mold, and fix piping, but residents interviewed by The Day said more needs to be done to tackle the mold issues and ensure a safe living environment for residents.

    Related provided The Day with status reports but said they could not comment further due to the pending litigation.

    Residents voice concerns

    Carrieri said she was always getting sinus infections and colds in her moldy apartment, and as soon as she came back, she started getting sick again.

    During the repairs, she stayed in a hotel for six weeks, returning the week before Christmas. Carrieri said her 8-year-old son, who is autistic, had a hard time being in a hotel and cried at school because he didn’t know where he would be for Christmas.

    Resident Sara Alvarez is living with her three children, ages 11, 14, and 18, in a temporary apartment at Branford Manor while her apartment is being remediated.

    The family was offered a one-room hotel stay this past summer, before Branford Manor started offering residents temporary apartments, but declined because it wouldn’t accommodate the family of four, Alvarez said. The family instead agreed to make their own living arrangements and Related would pay weekly food stipends. For a period of time, her two younger kids, who have asthma and had to leave the moldy apartment, were living at their grandmother’s house. The family of four has been living in a temporary apartment for three months.

    Alvarez was diagnosed with a non-cancerous brain tumor about six months ago ― the cause unknown ― and said she did not regularly receive the food stipends on time in the amount they were supposed to receive. She had to take on a second job in October to make ends meet.

    Now, Alvarez said she is again facing mold. She is already seeing her children’s symptoms starting and knows the asthma attacks are coming.

    Alvarez, who keeps her air conditioner on at all times to try to keep down the humidity, said her 11-year-old daughter recently got a nosebleed, a sign that she is inhaling mold. Within days, mold emerged in her bathroom. Alvarez said her 14-year-old son’s nose is getting itchy.

    Alvarez, who also has asthma, thinks they are going to have to leave this temporary apartment, too. But she said the work on her apartment is not done, and she is waiting for a three-bedroom apartment to open up.

    Despite the mold problem at Branford Manor, the apartments remain in high demand for families who have few choices of affordable housing in the region.

    In the living room, bags are piled high with the family’s belongings and boxes are stacked in the closet.

    “Its hard,” Alvarez said, speaking in Spanish as her lawyer Amity Arscott translated. “I mean, the kids can’t get what they need. Everything’s packed up.”

    She also is waiting for reimbursement for two nebulizers, which she showed photos of covered in mold.

    Living in a hotel

    Branford Manor resident Sandra Fetters and her teenage daughters have been living for more than 250 days in a Mystic hotel where Branford Manor representatives moved them.

    Fetters, who has asthma, allergies, and chronic bronchitis, paid for her own mold and air quality testing to be done on her apartment. She said her doctor advised her to abandon her apartment. She said she can’t move back to Branford Manor because she needs to protect her health and her daughters’ health.

    She said she continues to pay rent and keeps receiving letters stating her Branford Manor apartment is ready. Fetters said she needs an air quality test to prove the apartment is free of mold. She said she can’t be around even low levels of mold.

    Fetters said the buildings at Branford Manor need to be gutted and fully remediated, because otherwise mold will spread.

    She said the hotel room now feels like home.

    “You’re just used to it, and I feel safe because this place isn’t contaminated and, if it was, my body would let me know it,” she said.

    She said she feels stuck, and she feels she is being offered the choice between homelessness and her health. She is pushing for a Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher.

    “The housing market out here is horrible and especially when you’re below the poverty line,” she said. “I can’t afford anything out here.”

    Health, rental code violation and remediation plan

    The city and town councils voted in the fall to hold Related in default of a tax incentive agreement due to public health and city rental code violations.

    The default gave Related deadlines to fix housing and public health problems that were identified. If Related doesn’t meet those deadlines, the town and city could choose to end the tax incentive agreement. Town Manager John Burt and City of Groton Mayor Keith Hedrick said Related is working on fixing the issues, so there are no plans currently to end the agreement.

    A 20-year agreement signed in 2017 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 improve the complex.

    Burt and Hedrick said Related will remain in default until the repair and remediation work is completed, and deficiencies identified by Ledge Light Health District and the city building inspector are corrected. Related is abiding by the parameters set by the councils to allow them to continue with the remediation work.

    Related has set the end of February as the expected completion date for renovation work that includes mold remediation, installing dehumidification systems in the basements, addressing material deficiencies in apartments, and replacing bathroom exhaust fans with fans that will run continuously and at higher speeds when the light is on, Hedrick said. He said the city building inspector is at Branford Manor several times a week ― sometimes daily ― to conduct inspections and approve the completed work.

    Joseph J. Summers, building official for the city, said the office is tracking 51 rental housing code complaints filed against Branford Manor. The complaints cover the period between June 2022 and January 2023. As of Jan. 24, 10 of the 51 rental housing code complaints have been closed, leaving 41 complaints open.

    Related said it could not comment due to the pending litigation, but shared its moisture remediation status reports that outline the remediation work and indicate leaking PEX piping installed by the prior owner was the source of some of the moisture issues.

    In a Jan. 15 status report, Branford Manor management said workers had remediated and retested 92 apartments, replaced all basement plumbing and most crawl space plumbing, received basement dehumidification systems, and is in the process of installing vapor barriers in crawl spaces and replacing basement windows.

    In September, a team of community health workers from Ledge Light Health District went to all the units at Branford Manor that hadn’t already been visited, to ask residents if they had public health concerns.

    “LLHD continues to work with the Town and City of Groton, and the tenants and management of Branford Manor to assure that all units comply with the Connecticut Public Health Code,” said Katie Baldwin, Ledge Light’s supervisor of regulated facilities and housing.

    Baldwin said the health district has ordered correction of violations of the state’s public health code and general statutes in multiple units at Branford Manor. Many apartments have been remediated, and additional apartments still need to be fixed. If residents have concerns regarding the conditions in their apartment, Baldwin said they should contact Ledge Light, and can also request assistance for filing complaints.

    Ledge Light Health District has 31 open complaints, and closed 54 complaints, in the period between August and the present.

    Pending litigation

    Attorneys Arscott of Embry Neusner Arscott & Shafner, LLC in Groton and David N. Rosen of New Haven filed in December a lawsuit on behalf of a group of Branford Manor residents against the companies that own and manage Branford Manor: Branford Manor Preservation, LP; Branford Manor Preservation GP, LLC; Related Affordable, LLC; and Related Management Corporation. The case was transferred from New London Superior Court to the complex litigation docket at Waterbury Superior Court.

    “This has been a chronic and systemic issue for years,” said Arscott who represents more than 100 Branford Manor residents. “Finally, some attention is being paid to it, but you’re talking years of deferred maintenance and years of issues, and it’s a huge stress for the families that live here now to deal with the mold and/or other safety issues and just the chaos that comes with being part of a massive construction project and the unfortunate disorganization of ownership.”

    HUD’s inspection standards

    The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development said it is following the issue and remaining “in close contact with Related to monitor progress made addressing the moisture at Branford Manor.”

    “We are tracking progress made repairing issues identified in individual units and reducing excess moisture in buildings across the property,” a HUD spokesperson said in a statement. “With the help of local officials, we are also following violations issued by the City of Groton Building Department and Ledge Light Health District and actions Related has taken to correct these issues.”

    HUD said Related has been responsive to its requests and has hired Housing Opportunities Unlimited, a Boston-based company, to minimize disruption to residents during the improvement project, provided on-site accommodations for residents who need to be temporarily relocated, and engaged Rainbow Housing, which Related describes as a “national provider of onsite and digital resident services.”

    HUD said that while there are no national standards for mold, its proposed National Standards for the Physical Inspection of Real Estate (NSPIRE) “provide standards for identifying and categorizing the severity of mold-like substances observed during a physical inspection.” HUD is currently evaluating public comments about the proposed standards, in development since 2019, and could revise or add standards before the Oct. 1 target date for implementation.

    Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., recently received a response to a letter they sent to HUD.

    “I continue to work with federal, state and local officials to ensure timely and respectful responses to the horrific conditions that have been plaguing Branford Manor residents,” Blumenthal said in a statement. “HUD, in responding to my letter urging systemic changes to their inspection and landlord oversight practices, have indicated they are changing their inspection protocols to better hold accountable landlords who fail to provide safe, quality housing. Such protocols will for the first time include addressing mold issues like the ones encountered at Branford Manor — a long overdue step forward.”

    Proposed mold legislation

    Introducing federal mold legislation remains a near-term priority for U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District.

    State Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, proposed state legislation, which has been referred to the General Assembly’s Public Health Committee and co-sponsored by state Rep. Devin Carney, R-Old Lyme, to protect residents from mold.

    Somers’ proposed legislation calls for the creation of a mold protection advisory committee within the state Department of Public Health. The state agency would be required to consult with the committee in creating guidelines for “permissible exposure limits” to indoor mold, standards for assessing the health threat from indoor mold exposure, and guidelines for remediating indoor mold, as well as uniform standards for mold assessment and remediation.

    The proposal also calls for penalizing residential landlords, in certain circumstances, if mold is found; allowing a state income tax credit for the owners of single-family and multi-family residential developments who spend money on certain kinds of mold remediation; and allowing tenants to deposit rent in an escrow account if their landlord fails to comply with certain mold remediation requirements. The proposed legislation would ban landlords from evicting or raising the rents of tenants who seek solutions to mold in their units.

    k.drelich@theday.com

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