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    Sunday, July 21, 2024
     

    ‘Groton is not alone’: Branford Manor mold struggle may lead to federal mandates

     
     
    In this file photo, Scott Mills talks shows the mold issue in the bathroom Wednesday, June 21, 2023, in the apartment where his family lives in Branford Manor in Groton. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    In this file photo, Christina Carrieri shows a window where water came in during a recent rainstorm at her Branford Manor Apartment in Groton Wednesday, January 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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    In this file photo, storage pods, used by residents to store stuff from their apartments while renovations and mold remediation work is happening, are seen on the lawn at Branford Manor on Tuesday, June 20, 2023. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    In this file photo, mold is seen on the bathroom windowsill of a temporary apartment where Sara Alvarez and her family live at Branford Manor Apartments in Groton Wednesday, January 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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    U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, U.S. Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., will introduce on Monday comprehensive federal legislation to address mold in federally subsidized housing in response to complaints about mold from Branford Manor residents.

    The proposed legislation would mandate research on mold, the development of standards for mold, an educational campaign on mold and tenants’ rights, funding to make housing improvements, and “minimum housing stock quality requirements for federally-assisted housing,” among other provisions, according to a bill fact sheet.

    Courtney said the proposed Healthy at Home Act of 2023 was inspired by the situation at Branford Manor in the City of Groton, a 441-unit federally subsidized housing complex where residents have complained about mold and maintenance problems, despite the property passing inspections.

    The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development approved new inspection standards that include more detailed criteria for mold. The bill would codify the standards into law and strengthen and add to them.

    HUD’s new inspection standards, which prioritize “health, safety, and functional defects over appearance,” went into effect in July for public housing and will go into effect in October for HUD-subsidized multifamily developments, according to a HUD spokesperson. “Severe” health and safety deficiencies have to be corrected within 24 hours and “moderate” issues have to be corrected within 30 days.

    Courtney said that while the bill originated locally, he has learned, in speaking with other groups, that Groton is not alone. Mold also is a growing problem with climate change, he said.

    “This is really a national issue and the fact that HUD moved forward in terms of their inspection standards is more proof of that: that this is a problem that has really been neglected, and it’s impacting people really all across the country,” Courtney said.

    “This legislation should help prevent the deep and dramatic suffering of tenants, like the Branford Manor residents, who endured unhealthy and unsafe living conditions for much too long,” said Blumenthal. “I heard their heartbreaking stories, visited their homes, saw the mold and other toxic conditions, and I resolved that no one should be subject to these inhumane conditions and so this legislation initiates broad systematic reforms that prevent situations like Branford Manor and gives residents real recourse.”

    He commended HUD for moving forward with better standards. But he said the bill calls for a comprehensive study of mold, so even better standards could be adopted.

    Mold standards, action steps

    According to a section-by-section analysis of the bill, federal agencies would be required to research the health effects of indoor mold and deliver a publicly available report to Congress and the president within three years.

    Within three years of the study, federal agencies would have to develop model standards for inspecting and fixing mold issues, model ventilation standards, and model building code standards.

    HUD would need to incorporate the model standards into its inspections, three years after the standards are published.

    The bill also calls for the development of standards for indoor residential mold testing labs and protecting inspectors and the workers removing the mold, the bill states.

    The bill requires that “an entity receiving housing assistance payments maintain decent, safe and sanitary conditions,” and outlines that there would be penalties if a subsidized property fails a federal inspection, or doesn’t certify that it has fixed the problem within three days.

    Under the bill, tenants could request an additional inspection for a housing development, and if the tenants still disagree with the results, there is an “opportunity for mediation between tenants, owners, and the project-based contractor administrator.”

    HUD would also have to advertise a tenant hotline number and be notified if more than 15% of tenants of a housing development call the hotline.

    The bill also calls for the development of model construction standards to prevent mold in residential buildings. Within one year of development, HUD, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency, Treasury, and Department of Defense would require the construction standards of all residential renovations or construction projects that receive federal funding.

    The bill also gives HUD $250 million for grants and low-interest loans to benefit health and safety improvements at Section 8 project-based housing.

    Financial incentives ― $80 million through Fiscal Years 2028 ― would be given to states, tribes, counties, or other forms of government that require the disclosure of known environmental hazards, “including radon, carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, lead, asbestos and mold, when selling a residential property with four or more units.” Governments must use the money to improve housing.

    The bill also calls for a mapping tool to show areas where there is known indoor mold and for a study on communication among public housing entities, landlords and tenants and how to improve communication and ensure tenants know their rights.

    There also would be an education campaign on indoor air quality and tenants’ “rights to a safe and habitable living environment, including who to contact if they experience problems with building conditions.”

    HUD would receive $50 million to implement the legislation and then $10 million in Fiscal Years 2025 and 2026.

    The next step in the House would be for the bill to be referred to a House committee, discussed and voted on, and then sent to the House floor for a vote if approved by the committee. Similarly, the next step in the Senate would be for the bill to be referred to a committee, discussed and voted on, and if, approved, sent to the Senate floor.

    For the legislation to move forward, both the House and the Senate would need to advance it and send it to the president’s desk.

    Courtney said he gives a lot of credit to the initiatives by HUD Secretary Marcia L. Fudge to include mold criteria in the inspection process, and he also tips his hat to the state legislature, which in June passed a law that directs the state Department of Health to research and develop standards for indoor mold and mold testing.

    But he said there’s no question that mold was overlooked for an unacceptable period of time.

    He said he gives “the most credit to the people in Groton, who really said ‘we’re not going to take this anymore,’ so it’s nice to see the system’s responding the way it has.”

    k.drelich@theday.com

    More than 20 groups have endorsed the Healthy at Home Act: American Academy of PAs, American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, American Lung Association, Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments, American Public Health Association, Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, Change the Air Foundation, Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, Environmental Law & Policy Center, Green & Healthy Homes Initiative, Institute of Inspection Cleaning and Restoration Certification, National Association of Environmental Medicine, National Center for Healthy Housing, National Environmental Health Association, National Housing Law Project, National League of Cities, National NeighborWorks Association, Partnership for Strong Communities, Safe Kids Worldwide, Women In Need, Inc., and National Low Income Housing Coalition.

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