GROTON — After numerous and emotional complaints by residents of Branford Manor, town officials have begun to publicly question whether the owner of the 442-unit complex is fulfilling the requirements of a tax agreement with the town worth well over $500,000 since the 30-year deal began in 2016.
Groton City Mayor Keith Hedrick told CT Examiner on Wednesday that he has begun work to resolve long-standing issues of mold, leaks and neglected maintenance that residents recounted to the Town Council on Tuesday.
The broader issue now, Hedrick said, is that there is no evidence that the town had ever tried to verify whether Branford was meeting its annual obligations outlined in the tax agreement.
Hedrick said he had contacted Branford Management last week and asked for a full accounting.
“So that we can validate the requirements of the tax agreement in addition to maintaining the grounds and the apartments in good working order,” he said. “They are two separate things, I am working with Branford Manor to get those things done. It’s going to be a process.”
Hedrick is demanding that Branford Manor Preservation, which purchased the property in 2017, provide a full accounting of how it had spent an agreed-upon investment of $18.5 million to build a new resident services building and “make and maintain exterior and interior repairs, upgrades, renovations and replacements” to the property.
Hedrick said that he has also asked for documentation showing that the owner fulfilled a number of requirements laid out in the agreement — including two specific lists of improvements and $15,000 in social services annually — for the 47-townhouse 442-unit complex built in the 1970s. The apartment qualify for rental subsidies under Section 8 housing regulations.
The mold issues had been a subject of a story in the Day, in Sept., 2021.
Numerous health complaints
On Tuesday, Latasha Burage told the Town Council that she has been constantly hoarse since she moved to Branford Manor 12 years ago, a problem she attributed to the mold in her apartment.
“I have lots of respiratory issues. I have asthma now. I have issues with sinus infections constantly. Since I’ve been there, I’ve complained about mold,” she said.
Burage, who was earlier interviewed by the Day concerning the mold issue in her apartment, told the council she has asked for help “continuously” and said she was ignored by Hedrick until recently.
She said she had received a notice to quit because of alleged nonpayment of four months of rent and had to go to the bank to get copies of her rent checks to prove she had paid in full.
“I just want to bring to your attention today that we’re kind of feeling the lack of respect.”
Christina Rotharmel, who joined the Town Council meeting via Zoom, said she had lived in Branford Manor for 12 years. She shared pictures of the mold in her apartment.
“We started complaining about the mold in late 2019 when our switch plate in the kitchen started curling out away from the wall. Maintenance would come in, they would wipe it down with bleach, replace the switch plate. After the second or third time, they literally poured bleach down into the hole in the wall,” she said.
In fall of 2020, Rotharmel said she learned that there had been a pipe leaking inside the wall. When she discussed the mold problem inside of the walls with a plumber, she said she was told that the management company knew about the mold issue, but that “mold remediation was too expensive so they weren’t going to do it.”
She said the floor started to buckle in the kitchen and she saw similar problems in neighboring apartments. Management replaced the hardwood floors with laminate and they began to buckle soon afterwards, Rotharmel said.
She said she became very ill and was admitted to the ICU for 29 days in April 2021 – health issues that she attributed to the mold.
“I almost died of heart failure, not realizing that the mold situation was a contributing factor because of my lung conditions.”
Then she noticed black mold growing in the back of her cabinets and called the management office, who sent a worker to remove the cabinet from the wall, revealing more black mold.
According to Rotharmel, her physician told her she needed to move immediately or she was going to die. At that point, Branford management moved her family to a hotel.
“We were given three days’ notice to move… When we moved we found mold everywhere – in the closets, behind pictures, even in the caps of my pill bottles,” she said.
Inspections and remediation
For the mold issue, Hedrick told CT Examiner he wanted to make sure a visual inspection was done, followed by consistent testing and verification of whether or not mold exists, and then a remediation plan if mold does exist, followed by retesting to verify that the mold has been remediated.
But Jen Muggeo, deputy director of Ledge Light Health District, which serves as the town’s health department, said that there is a lack of standards for measuring and evaluating the severity of a mold issue.
“It all depends, there are no regulations. Regarding mold, there’s no kind of minimum or maximum thresholds or anything like that to trigger enforcement action. We do, depending on the situation, you know, if we can identify something structural or a leak or something like that, that’s contributing to the moisture and the growth of mold then we could order that remediation and other times it’s educating people about humidity and cleaning and things like that.
Muggeo told CT Examiner on Friday that there are no closed investigations related to mold at Branford Manor and that by state statute she could not share information or reports about open investigations.
CT Examiner has submitted a Freedom of Information request regarding all public complaints and closed investigations by Ledge Light since 2017 at Branford Manor.
In an email on Friday, spokesperson from Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, told CT Examiner that HUD “does inspect properties on a regular basis via Real Estate Assessment Center inspections and through Management and Occupancy Reviews.”
Branford Manor’s last Management and Occupancy Review, was completed on June 11, 2021 with an overall rating of “Satisfactory” and the next review is scheduled for June 20, 2022, according to the email.
The spokesperson said that HUD’s Multifamily Division has been in contact with the owner-agent at Branford and “they report [that] there has been a discovery of leaks and the property is working with a third-party vendor to assess the issue. If mold is located, they will take appropriate action which will include a full remediation.”
In addition, regarding piping, “they have been in contact with several third-party vendors to contract for the replacement of the piping systematically, building by building, as leaks are discovered, and inspections are scheduled to fully assess the moisture, mold, and mildew issues,” the email stated.
The spokesperson said that HUD’s Multifamily Division has issued a deadline of 30 days to hire a contractor, complete a site-wide assessment of mold and mildew, and provide a plan for remediation, along with sources and uses of funds. The multifamily division has also requested “an expedited property inspection and has moved up the property’s Management and Occupancy review to July-September 2022.”
On Friday, a spokesperson for Branford Manor responded by email that “the health and safety of our residents continues to be our top priority as we work through our comprehensive plan for the outstanding issues at Branford Manor. We’re deeply engaged with local leaders and all stakeholders to ensure that our residents’ needs are being met and that any complaints are quickly addressed.”
Residents question management practices
Residents told the Town Council that Branford Manor management had targeted tenants with eviction notices for reporting problems, creating an atmosphere of harassment and distrust.
Residents also said that the management had closed off the basement spaces of apartments to control the mold, creating an unsafe situation.
“The management decided to close the basements in the units, but the doors are not secure and can be kicked in because they are held only by nails,” Marilyn Monagas, a 12-year resident of Branford, told the council. She said closing off her basement also leaves less space for herself and her three children who live in a two-bedroom apartment.
Christina Tejeda, who has lived at Branford for a little over four years, said her three sons store their bikes and toys in the basement.
“But the mold is a concern, but mold needs to be cleaned, not the basements being shut down. Shutting down the basement doesn’t do anything. The mold is still there,” she said.
Other tenants questioned management practices that they said included backdating applications , entering apartments without tenant permission, issuing eviction notices for minor infractions.
Ramonita Ramos told the council she was risking receiving a notice to quit by talking with the council.
“I’m gonna say seven out of the 10 apartments in my apartment area have received a notice to quit just from meeting with the mayor and some of the people here,” Ramos said, who is a single mother and nine-year resident of Branford.
She said that she received a notice from management to remove all of the trash from her basement and that if it was not removed by the deadline that it would be removed at the tenant’s expense.
She said management completed its annual inspection on May 19 and within the week she received a notice that she would receive a second inspection.
“I asked them why if they had already been in my apartment. They said this one is for the basement now, which I didn’t understand because I didn’t have that mold problem that I’m aware of. But they had access to my apartment that whole entire day and they didn’t check the basement,” she said. “So I asked to be present for the second inspection … [but] apparently someone has already been in my apartment without my knowledge,” she said.
Ramos said that building management “really has it out for us. And I hope that someone does something for it because we are tired of the manipulation. We’re tired of being harassed.” .
Council Members Respond
Aundré Bumgardner, a member of the Town Council, told CT Examiner on Wednesday that Branford Manor Preservation should be held in default of the tax incentive agreement.
“This is an example where government needs to step up for our residents,” Bumgardner said. “They are receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax abatement every single year – money that can be invested in our schools. It’s money that can be invested in improving our affordable housing stock, money that can be invested to invest in our parks and our recreation services for those children.”
Bumgardner alleged that owners of Branford Manor were pocketing money and doing nothing to reinvest the dollars into improving housing.
“[They are doing it] in a manner that’s absolutely deplorable and unacceptable that this has gone on so long. I’m so embarrassed to have heard all of the concerns from residents, and we haven’t done anything,” he said.
Hedrick said he was aware that some want to pull Branford’s tax incentive agreement immediately, but that he wants to work to remedy the situation first.
“There are gonna be those people that say, you know, you need to just kill the agreement, and they have to pay the full amount of taxes. Well, it’s not that simple. Now that we’ve identified the problem, we need to hold them accountable. And then if they decide that they’re not going to meet the requirements, then I think we have a valid leg to stand on in order to do this. But it would end up in court and that would be expensive for the taxpayers and maybe in the end, it may not be the best thing for the residents,” he said.
Hedrick said he was also concerned about municipal overreach given that Branford Manor is located within Groton City and the Town of Groton.
He said he first met with residents of Branford on May 6, and with a senior vice president, a regional representative and a local manager of Branford Manor on May 13. He has since had several separate meetings with residents and management.
Hedrick said his immediate goal was to get the issues identified and corrected so that residents could return to their normal way of life. He said that he and John Burt, manager of the Town of Groton, were working together to ensure inspections take place going forward so that the problems do not arise again.
“I need to ensure that Branford Manor is doing what I’ve asked them to do, and they’re doing the right thing. If I find that they’re not, then town manager Burt and I want to discuss what our next steps are on how we want to do what we want to do and how we want to do it,” he said.