GROTON — On Tuesday night, members of the Town Council demanded that the owner of Branford Manor speed up the progress of mold remediation in the 442-unit, Section 8 apartment complex, especially so that families who have been living in hotels can move back to their homes before the school year starts.
As of August 15, there were tenants from seven units housed in hotels.
“For families who are staying in hotels, some of them have been in hotels for over two months now. What steps are being taken to ensure that their homes are remediated if not this week, next week, and certainly not any later. Two months in a hotel is completely inexcusable,” said Councilor Aundré Bumgardner.
At issue is the lack of state testing standards for mold, which has blurred the definition of remediation and led to a difference of opinion between Related Affordable, which owns Branford Manor, and the tenants’ counsel on how best to remediate the mold, said Town Manager John Burt.
Of the 144 units with basements, tests showed that 94 or 95 detected mold, said Burt.
And in late June, HUD performed a Real Estate Assessment Center inspection, known as REAC, and mold was found in 10 units out of 25 — about 40 percent, Burt said.
To move tenants out of hotels and back to the complex, Related Affordable has begun to open up units where tenants can live while their apartments are remediated, Burt said.
“Branford indicated yesterday that they’ve freeing up 12 units, furnished, in their facilities to use as people have work done on their rooms,” Burt said. “As of yesterday, they had three clearance reports for units that have been provided to the tenants’ legal counsel and they’re working on that three more.”
Councilors also questioned whether the company had adhered to the 30-year tax stabilization agreement with the town that includes requirements for maintenance of the buildings — interior and exterior repairs, upgrades and renovation — as well as an annual $15,000 in social services for residents.
“Related has readily admitted in the past that they have not been doing appropriate maintenance there for a number of years,” said Burt.
Bumgardner said that Related’s apology and promise to remediate the mold and other issues had been a significant factors in the council not holding the company in default of the tax agreement — but the process was taking too long.
“So for me, that’s a non-starter if they refuse to remediate the mold to the satisfaction of the residents and their legal representation, that is absolutely grounds to hold Branford Manor in default of the tax stabilization,” said Bumgardner, who became emotional and banged on the table while he spoke. “We’ve been here for three months discussing this and I’m sick and tired of hearing ‘we’re working on this, we’re doing this, we’re trying.’ We’re not trying hard enough.”
Bumgardner said there were people living in hotels, some of whom have children with autism.
“No one can understand the pain and struggle that these families are going through,” he said.
“Not one of us at this table would want any of us or our families to be subjected to those living environments, period. It ain’t right,” he said.
He said that Related was dragging its feet and town’s recourse was to potentially drop the tax agreement worth $450,00 in tax revenues starting this fiscal year in the Town of Groton and $60,000 in the City of Groton.
No state standards for measuring mold
Stephen Mansfield, director of Ledge Light Health District, gave council members a spreadsheet showing 39 current complaints at Branford Manor – some open, some closed. He said that his agency received 20 of those complaints on Friday, submitted by a representative of a number of tenants.
But the agency still doesn’t know the full extent of the problem, he said.
“We’ve struggled with who is having problems at Branford Manor,” he said.
He said his agency put together a flyer — in Spanish and English — encouraging people with environmental concerns at Branford Manor to contact the agency.
“We’ve only been in about half of the units that the legal counsel have brought to our attention. So we haven’t even identified in a lot of cases whether or not there is an environmental health concern,” he said.
Mansfield his agency could not issue a public health order based on a measurement of mold without a state statute, ordinance or regulation.
“There are not enforceable standards in the state of Connecticut when it comes to looking at the results from, say, an air test,” he said. “That being said, we will look at all of the evidence that comes to us whether it’s testing that a company has provided or visual assessments when we go into the unit, what we experience when we’re in the unit.”
He said his agency’s employees are not indoor air quality experts, nor are they expected to be.
“We don’t have the ability to test. We just don’t have that expertise or we’re not educated in those standards, so we rely on the experts, the toxicologists and the folks that DPH, to help us interpret the data,” he said.
Councilor Portia Bordelon told the council that she will be committed to creating legislation in Hartford with enforceable mold regulations.
“If there is not a standard, the state needs to make one,” Bordelon said.
Councilor Melinda Cassiere said that at the council’s June 14 meeting, the president of Related Affordable, Matthew Finkle, had said that his company “wanted to work together and remedy the tax situation regardless of what happens with the tax incentive agreement,” which the council had discussed terminating — an action Finkle described as “out looking for blood, for lack of a better term.” Cassiere quoted Finkle as saying, “But moving down that path I think two things will happen. One, there will be lawyers who will have to get paid a lot of money to fight a battle that doesn’t need to get paid…”
Cassiere asked town attorney Eileen Duggan whether it was fair to say Finkle was “insinuating or at least alluding to that there would be legal action if we were to end the tax incentive agreement.”
Duggan said that while she would not comment specifically on what Finkle said, she thought that “ending the tax agreement would invite litigation.”
Cassiere said that Related was “proactively trying to remediate“ the situation and had indicated it was going to hire three licensed mold remediation firms as well as including HETI, Hydro Environmental Technologies, to assist in an assessment. Cassiere also pointed out that the company had made progress on a number of fronts including replacing ductwork and inadequately-sized bathroom fans.
Councilor Rachael Franco said that if the town abandons the tax abatement then it was likely that communication with Related would cease, and litigation could ensue.
She asked town attorney Duggan if Related was legally in default of the contract.
“It’s not to say, again, that there haven’t been things that have been done wrong. I think the question is where do you go from here. The contract, even if there was a default, provides for a notice period. The contract further states that if they’re moving basically in the right direction towards getting something done, then they’re going to get a delay on the ability to actually call in that default,” said Duggan.
Franco suggested that it would be better if Related Affordable placed tenants in short term rentals instead of hotels.
“So at least they’re in a home environment where they have you’re not just in a room with a bed… where they can cook and they can sit maybe at a table and do homework with children,” Franco said.
Burt said that Related’s communication about plans for remediation had been subpar but was improving.
“They were slow to get things going and their communication skills are still not perfect. They’ve been improving. We’re always on them about it. But I do think they’re intent on fixing it, but I’m not privy to all the dialogue between Related and tenants and their counsel. From my perspective, it appears it’s now starting to progress,” said Burt.
Hedrick said he reached out to HUD asking for an expansion of the mold inspections — and for help from the Sen. Richard Blumenthal engaging HUD. Hedrick said he and Burt had a meeting scheduled with HUD later in the week.
“HUD has the big stick and is the one with the money. It’s the one to make them move,” Hedrick said. “I’m hoping that once we have that meeting, we ca get HUD to use their hammer to push more for the faster pace.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misstated that Councilor Melinda Cassiere said that the council was “out looking for blood” concerning termination of the tax stabilization agreement. Matthew Finkle, president of Related Affordable, used those words during the June 14 council meeting and, at this meeting on August 23, Cassiere was quoting Finkle. This story has been corrected.