GROTON —The top management executive from the company that owns Branford Manor apologized to its residents on Thursday and promised to fix long standing mold and maintenance issues — a message that was met with skepticism by a number of tenants who said their complaints have been ignored for months and even years.
“I just want to first of all say that from me and for my entire team, I do apologize for the conditions that have been occurring here at Branford. It’s not how we like to run our properties. We know it’s been a challenge and, you know, there’s been a lot of missteps made on our part, which has made things very difficult for many of you. And for that, I do truly apologize,” said Matthew Finkle, president of Related Affordable, to an audience of about 40 people who sat and stood in the community center of the 442-unit apartment complex.
Finkle said he had spent his entire career focusing on owning and managing affordable properties around the country and that in his 20 years with the company there had been very few instances of problems to the degree of Branford Manor.
“So I find it personally embarrassing that we have the situation and that’s why I’m here. That’s why I’ve been involved for quite some time in trying to assist in rectifying the situation,” he said. “The good news is that all the problems that we have here, in my opinion, are fixable.”
The buildings’ issues include faulty Pex piping that resulted in moisture problems and mold in the basements and apartments, which Finkle said will take time and effort to solve. He talked about the new construction management team, including a new project manager who will oversee pipe replacements and moisture issues.
“But nothing’s going to happen overnight. So all I can ask is to cooperate with us, work with us, and be patient as much as you can, and we will do everything in our power to remedy the situation,” he said. “Also, we can’t fix what we don’t know [about], so I always encourage everybody to make us aware through work orders of other issues you have in your apartment.”
Finkle said that the company’s routine apartment inspections ceased during the pandemic, partly because of a staff shortage, which led to the current poor conditions.
“But now that we’re here… we can get in and do these projects and get them fixed. You have a commitment that we will do whatever it takes,” he said.
Finkle was joined by Heather Phillips, regional vice president for Related Affordable, who introduced the management team and the maintenance team. She said that Donna Brown, property manager for Branford Manor, “has taken a retirement” and the company is looking to hire her replacement.
Phillips told the audience that the company is in the process of hiring a full time resident service coordinator who will act as a liaison between management and residents. The coordinator will also help bring in programs for social services, which the company is contractually required to provide at a cost of $15,000 annually, but did not do so during the pandemic.
She said the apartment complex passed the HUD Real Estate Assessment Center, known as REAC, inspections last week.
But when a resident asked if the results of the HUD inspections would be released to residents, Phillips said the company had not done so in the past.
Finkle responded that he would “have to think about it” and would “take it under consideration,” which was met with more questions from the resident about the rights of tenants during inspections, especially if other issues were raised.
Portia Bordelon, a town councilor who was in the audience, said she felt it was the right of residents to receive a copy of the inspection report, and pointed out that the HUD inspection did not include mold.
An eight-year resident of Branford Manor told Finkle that the current problems were the exactly the same as when he first moved in, even though Related Affordable purchased the property in 2017 and promised $1.8 million in improvements. He asked why Related had worked on the exterior of the building but not the interiors.
Finkle responded that his company hadn’t just focused on the outside of the buildings. “We replaced kitchens, bathrooms, flooring, windows, roofs, siding, roofs.” He reminded the audience that his company built the community center.
The resident said there hadn’t been access to the community building for the first two years. He then asked whether Finkle would stay that night in one resident’s apartment that had a large crack in the ceiling.
Finkle responded, “It’s not the point of this meeting.”
“What is the point of this meeting?” the resident asked.
Residents began to speak all at once and Phillips tried to bring order to the room.
A nine-year resident told Phillips and Finkle that they didn’t know what it was like to live in apartments with mold and disrepair, and to have maintenance calls go unanswered for weeks and months.
“You get to go home and you get to have clean water and you don’t have to deal with the mold and your kids are safe in bed, sleeping,” the resident said.
One resident said there was mold in the washing machines in the laundry room of the complex and that the playground was unsafe because the new equipment was cheap and a concrete border had been installed around the border.
Another resident said the security lights outside his building had not worked for a year, despite his requests for repairs.
A resident asked about the history of the mold problem in the buildings and the health risks of mold spores. She also asked whether the costs of moving and staying in a hotel, along with related transportation and food, would be covered by Related.
Finkle said he had hired a project team to assess the buildings and create a plan of action concerning mold issues.
“By all your last point, there should be no additional burden to you whatsoever. So if moving to a hotel means that there’s additional transportation costs or food costs, we’re going to cover all of that. So there’s no additional burden to you whatsoever, other than the irritation of moving around, which I know is a huge burden in and of itself,” he said.
Bordelon said that considering the “deplorable” conditions of the apartments, the company was in default of its contract and should not receive its tax abatement of $430,000 from the Town of Groton, an amount verified by Town Manager John Burt, and an additional amount from the City of Groton.
When residents asked when their basements would reopen, Phillips said the company was in the process of finalizing a plan. She said the new project manager was working on the remediation project as well as moisture issues.
“Once we do get that plan in place, we will communicate it with all the residents, we will let everybody know what is going on in their units. We want to come up with a very thoughtful response in a way to make sure that everybody is satisfied with what we come up with. We don’t want to make everybody unhappy, we’re here to work with you. I want you guys to know that we’re not here to just take things away — we want to come up with a plan to make sure that everybody is satisfied,” she said.
Residents also asked about the notices to quit that had been issued. Phillips answered that the company is not moving forward with them right now.
The company will begin communicating with residents through a monthly newsletter produced in English and Spanish and an app called ActiveBuilding where notices to residents can be posted. The company also offered residents a $10 gift card to Stop and Shop if they updated their cell phone and email information with the management office.
Toward the end of the meeting, which ran over an hour, Phillips said the company would do its best to address the problems residents had raised.
“I think that we’ve gotten a really good earful of what we need to do here. And we’re really on our commitment that we’re going to work harder for all of you. I want you to please try to give us a chance,” she said. “I know it’s very difficult because you guys don’t know us and we haven’t had a good reputation here in the past, but like I said, the team and I and all the people here from Related are all really committed to making this work with you. So please give us a chance, reach out to us individually, we’ll be happy to do what we can.”
Bordelon asked Phillips for a time frame for the completion of the mold remediation and the repairs.
“We’ll keep you posted because I know that that’s very important. Everyone wants to be kept in the loop,” Phillips said.
As the meeting closed, one resident told Finkle that she didn’t like his energy and body language.
Finkle responded, “You’re entitled to your opinion.”
The resident said, “I bet you’re living great… You’re driving a Porsche, I can’t even afford a car.”
Residents began talking all at once. Phillips responded, “Listen everyone… try to remember that we’re here to help,” and thanked the audience for coming.