GROTON — Town council members grilled executives from Branford Manor on Tuesday about the long-term moldy conditions and disrepair of the 446-unit complex, while questioning whether the violations constituted a default of the owners’ 30-year tax incentive agreement.
Last week, residents recounted the poor conditions of their units to town councilors and described a relationship of fear and mistrust between the tenants and building management — conditions that have continued without help or response from town officials or the property owners until recently.
Matthew Finkle, president of Related Affordable, which manages the complex, began with an apology when he addressed the council.
“I just want to straight out apologize for conditions that are existing at Branford Manor. I know residents are frustrated, I know they’re angry, I know the council is frustrated… At the first chance I get, which is going to be pretty soon at an event at the property, I will apologize to the residents as well for the conditions that some of them are experiencing,” said Finkle, whose company is a division of Related Companies, which develops, acquires and preserves affordable housing throughout the U.S.,
He told the council he was “extremely disappointed” in the performance of his entire company that he said had been in operation for 50 years and owns and manages many properties. .
“Rarely do we have a situation like this where we have issues with moisture and issues with mold in the basement. So we can talk about the notices to quit and a lot of misinformation that maybe we can talk about as well — but I’m not denying the fact that we have problems and I’m also not denying the fact that we have a plan to address them,” he said. “So we do take responsibility for these issues. I am here to take responsibility for that — we can as a company and we will absolutely do better.”
Finkle was seated at a table across from the council with his colleagues — Brian Mayer, president and CEO of Related Management Co., and Zach Simmons, senior vice president of Related Affordable.
Simmons said the mold problems originated with the failure of Pex piping that had been replaced in 2013.
“As some of you may be aware there are instances in which Pex has a bad batch, it’s as simple as that, and prematurely cracks and fissures,” Simmons said. “ In many instances, we were not aware of that over the course of the last year and a half or two because we were unable to conduct basement and unit inspections. And so some of these problems blossomed.”
Mayer told the council that the units are typically inspected one or two times a year, except the schedule stopped during COVID. He said the inspection schedule will change to once a month once the apartments are remediated.
Councilor Portia Bordelon questioned the practice of remediating apartments while residents were living there and asked that accommodations be made that included cooking facilities, especially for families with children.
Mayer responded that his company would pay for accommodations during mold remediation.
“We can also say tonight that any resident who would like a hotel room for as long as we need to remediate their basement is welcome to take us up on that,” he said.
Notices to quit, rent increases
Residents told the council on June 10 that they received notices to quit in retaliation for reporting mold and maintenance issues and organizing a tenants’ union.
“Are you aware [that] retaliating against residents who speak out with notices to quit is illegal and will you be rescinding those notices to quit?” Mayor Juan Melendez Jr. asked Finkle, Mayer and Simmons.
Mayer acknowledged that there had been problems with how management had communicated with residents, but said the 28 notices to quit were only issued if there had been specific lease violations.
“I’m confident [in] our team and that there was no retaliation — but Related management certainly did not put its best foot forward in the way in which we were communicating with our residents,” he said. “While we do have significant lease violations when it comes to past due rent, it is absolutely our intention to work with all 28 residents who received the notice to quit as a way to come out better on the other side of this episode.”
Councilor Aundré Bumgardner said the timing of the notices to quit was suspect, since, he said, several residents received them right after organizing as a tenants’ union.
Finkle “categorically denied” any retaliation against residents for reporting mold and maintenance issues. He said that retaliation is an immediately fireable offense at Related.
“There is no connection at all, between any notice to quit and any complaint relative to anything. Notice to quit is something that is generated based on an occupancy issue relative to the resident and the lease and has nothing to do with any complaint that anybody makes,” he said.
Finkle also said it was not possible for building management to increase tenants’ rent – which residents said management had done — because the rent is based on 30 percent of the resident’s income, as specified by the HUD formula and the section eight contract.
“The only way rent changes is through a certified income process. If a tenant does not recertify their income, then the rent goes to the full amount,” he said.
Finkle said his company has accumulated “enormous arrearages” during COVID and has not been knocking on tenants’ doors asking for rent. “We’re being accommodative,” he said.
Finkle said his company experienced challenges during the pandemic that prevented normal property management practices.
“Those things that you hear in the news about the great resignation and the unavailability of building materials and contractors and people unwilling to work at jobs like property management are absolutely real,” he said.
He said the company was unable to perform unit inspections that are normally done annually and sometimes twice a year.
“When we do those inspections, it reveals many things to us. It reveals things that residents aren’t necessarily reporting to us in terms of work orders or concerns. Those things might be moisture, they might be issues with pipes, ceilings, cabinets, or wherever it may be — and we generate our own list of work orders to address those,” he said. “So we’re coming out of a situation where we’ve been unable to access a lot of these units and unable to identify problems.”
Finkle said that providing consistent management during COVID was difficult.
“We had employees who resigned, we had employees who moved out of state, we had employees who we hired who didn’t even bother to show up the day that they were supposed to start,” he said. “Again I’m not excusing the situation we have at Branford Manor, but I hope you consider the situation that we all suffered through over the past two years when you realize what we’re trying to do to remedy it.”
But later, Councilor Rachael Franco asked how Finkle and his team allowed Branford Manor to deteriorate considering the years of experience the management team has in property management.
“You probably have multiple housing units across probably multiple states, what happened to this one? And like, did you just not have good contact with management on the ground here? I mean, something got out of control here… I’m glad you’re recognizing that there are serious issues here. And I hope that instead of just bringing in some people that you bring in a team, a team to really take care of this swiftly and quickly. Don’t let this drag on,” she said.
Eileen Duggan, a town attorney from Suisman Shapiro, walked the town council through the tax incentive agreement, emphasizing that one of the key provisions was allowing sufficient “cure time” for remedying a default.
She said there are sections throughout the contract that could be cited as defaults including tax payment obligations, social social services for residents and rental income restrictions, among others.
Duggan said that if provisions were not fulfilled and there was evidence of a particular default, then a formal notice would need to be provided to the developer with a timeframe for curing the issue.
Earlier in the meeting, Finkle said the company had complied with the agreement except that it had not supplied $15,000 of annual social services for the residents during the pandemic, and Simmons said the company has been submitting financial statements to the town and would work with the town to verify compliance.
But Bumgardner said that based on personal observations and conversations with residents, he believed that Branford Management was in default of the agreement, but urged the town council to discuss the matter in executive session.
“Quite frankly, I’m not really comfortable discussing whether or not we should move in default in a public manner like this — because I do think we need to move in that direction, but I also don’t think we should show our cards either because what they’re doing is criminal.”
Bordelon, in a statement, said that it appeared that Related had not fulfilled its end of the deal, nor had the Town and City of Groton established or maintained any schedule of regular site visits and inspections to ensure the contract was being followed.
“Swift and thorough measures need to be taken to support the residents in this most difficult time. My hope is that ownership and management will assertively rectify all the identified issues while the Town and City of Groton efficiently establish plan for oversight and enforcement of the agreement for improvement,” she wrote.
Councilor Melinda Cassiere asked if the city and town had more leverage to help the residents of Branford Manor by staying with the tax incentive agreement.
Duggan and Groton Town Manager John Burt said that if the town terminated the agreement, it would lose its jurisdiction at Branford Manor and issues would be handled by the building department, Ledge Light Health District and HUD. Duggan said that litigation would likely follow.
Of the 446 units at Branford Manor, 145 have basements, which have been closed off to residents presumably for mold and leak issues, but also because management said people were living in the basements, according to Groton City Mayor Keith Hedrick.
Alicia Ruiz, an attorney with Related, answered questions on May 13 about the basement closures on three closed complaints resolved by Ledge Light in May and June, which were obtained by CT Examiner through the Freedom of Information Act.
Residents who spoke to the council last week said that their basements were already closed. However, Ruiz wrote the basements are scheduled to be closed to residents on July 15 to assess and perform work regarding a broad-scale pipe replacement and “other health and safety issues.”
Ruiz wrote that tenant access to the basements would not resume after mold remediation and replacement of the pipes.
Finkle told the council that management had sent a notice to residents about closing basements that was “poorly written and should never have been sent.” He said Related wanted to reach a compromise on the basements so that tenants could use them “for their intended use, however in a safe way that works for both us and for the residents.”
On Friday, Hedrick told CT Examiner that the city and the town have talked with Related management about returning the basements to the residents. He said the company has specified that basements may be used exclusively for storage but not as living quarters.
“There’s anecdotal discussion that there were people living there but we don’t have and I don’t personally have evidence of it. The thing that will be needed is that Branford will need to explain very clearly what living in the basement means… [It] needs to be very clear what is allowed and what is not allowed,” he said.
In an email on Friday, Burt told CT Examiner that he had been directed by the town council to put together a summary of what Branford executives said at the June 14 meeting as documentation “to hold them to anything they agreed to and to put together a list of other information/actions the town would like them to take.” He said he and Hedrick were collaborating on the summary, which will be compiled into a letter to Related.
He also said the town and city are going to hold annual joint inspections of Branford Manor going forward.
In response to CT Examiner’s questions concerning resident relocation, resolution of the notices to quit, and mold testing results, among others, a spokesperson from Branford Manor responded by email on Friday afternoon:
“The health and safety of our residents is always our top priority. Over the course of the pandemic, there have been a series of challenges that have greatly contributed to the current issues that have been raised at Branford Manor. We appreciate the opportunity to lay out to Groton elected leaders our detailed plans and comprehensive strategy to rectify these issues as we bring additional resources and new staff in to ensure the work is done efficiently and effectively. This plan is being communicated directly to residents and other stakeholders as well.”