The people of Coleman Towers report that a deal that allows the new owner of their affordable housing complex to renovate and expand it – with help from a large city tax break and millions in state financing – isn’t going as advertised.
They are living in an unheated building that is a dusty, dirty, noisy construction site, tenants said. Some have been moved in and out of apartments as construction progresses from floor to floor; others have been asked to move out of the building.
It’s not the way the project at 72 Spruce St. was portrayed to them, said the tenants, many of whom owned their apartments when Coleman Towers was a cooperative. Some have lived in the complex for more than 30 years.
After nearly a year of construction, Marilyn Lawton said she’s had it.
“The floors are filthy. The elevator is always broken. We breathe in bad air all the time. They’re drilling day and night. There are drills coming through my walls,” said Lawton, 68, a former teacher’s assistant who worked with special-needs kids. “I am so frustrated, so tired. My head hurts. This place has put stress on me.”
Because the building now has no heat, the property management company handed out space heaters, Lawton said.
“They gave me these little heaters that don’t work, so I bought a bigger one. My heating bill for the month went from $76 to $202,” Lawton said.
Last week everything got worse, she said. First the property manager told her she has 30 days to leave her two-bedroom apartment on the 10th floor, said Lawton, who has lived in Coleman Towers for 33 years.
Second, she learned that if she returns in November when the renovation is expected to be complete, she will get a small efficiency apartment, though she will continue to pay the $1,575 she now pays for her two-bedroom.
“They’re taking two-bedroom apartments and cutting them in half and making them into efficiencies,” Lawton said. “That’s how they are treating us.”
You’re in, then you’re out
It’s not right, said a young man who has lived in Coleman Towers most of his life. His late mother was an owner in the cooperative and wanted him to inherit the apartment, he said.
“At first they told me I’m grandfathered in but then they said I’m not,” he said. “My name is on the deed but they said they can’t honor it because I was a minor at the time.”
The property manager told him he could get an apartment in the building once it’s finished but not for the $1,400 he’s been paying. He was told he would be charged about $2,000 for a studio or $2,500 for a one-bedroom, he said.
“I went and got another job so I could pay the higher rent,” he said. “Construction was going on and they moved me from the second floor to the eleventh floor and then the ninth. Then last week they called and told me I have to be out by March 17.”
He didn’t want his name used because the property management company said they would help him find a new apartment and he doesn’t want to jeopardize that, he said.
“I don’t know where I can go, but I don’t want to come back here after people tell you they will give you this and that, and it turns into fool’s gold,” he said. “I understand people want their money, but don’t lie. People in our situation don’t have high-powered lawyers.”
The deal for the purchase and renovation of Coleman Towers is complex. According to its 2021 Zoning Board Certificate, city officials attempted to accommodate tenants who owned their apartments under the failed cooperative; tenants who rent; and tenants whose incomes meet varying affordable housing benchmarks.
Renovations began after a Shelton company, Spruce CT Owner LLC, bought the 1971 building last March for $15 million, according to city property records. A search of state business records shows that the company is affiliated with MLK Real Estate Capital, a commercial real estate banking, advisory and investment firm headquartered in New York City. The MLK principal is listed as Solomon Kinraich.
City records show that the Stamford Zoning Board approved a proposal by Kinraich to renovate all 89 units and increase the number to 132. Of those, 115 units must be leased at below market rate rents – 27 units at 50 percent or less of the area median income and 88 units at 60 percent or less.
That leaves 17 units to be offered at market rate rents.
City and state help the owner
Beyond that, the Board of Representatives approved a request from Mayor Caroline Simmons to grant a property tax abatement of 75 percent. Taxes on the building last year were $115,600. So, once the renovation is complete, Kinraich’s tax bill will be about $29,000 a year.
Kinraich secured $28 million in financing from the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority to purchase and renovate Coleman Towers, according to the tax abatement agreement. It states that Kinraich may use the funding to pay $1.7 million in city taxes owed by the Coleman Towers cooperative, which was in foreclosure at the time of sale.
Certificates and agreements are one thing; the lives of tenants are another, said Marie-Elena Britt, who got a call saying she must be out of the building by March 17.
“I was shocked,” Britt said. “We were told we would be moving within the building.”
She’s concerned about her 12-year-old son, who is in a specialized program at his school. It will be difficult for him if she cannot find another apartment in his school district and he has to transfer, she said.
Britt said she’s perplexed by a stipulation in the Zoning Board Certificate that says rents for former cooperative owners would not be raised for seven years. Britt understood it to mean that if she returned to building once it’s renovated, she would continue to pay $1,800 a month for the next few years.
But she’s learned that is not the case, Britt said.
“They told me I did not fill out the information packet correctly so the only thing they can do for me if I come back in November is $3,475 for a two-bedroom. And it would be $4,350 for a three-bedroom,” she said. “I thought the state gave them funding to make this an affordable-housing building.”
‘We need some honesty’
City Rep. Bonnie Kim Campbell said she has been trying to get information for her District 5 constituents. She and fellow District 5 Rep. Melinda Baxter set up a Friday meeting with Kinraich, Campbell said.
“We need some honesty and transparency. There’s a lot going on here and I don’t think everybody understands what it all is,” Campbell said. “I think we have people coming here treating people badly under the guise of renovation.”
Jessica Jaffer, who manages Coleman Towers for Kinraich’s company, said there is confusion.
“A lot of it has to do with residents being upset, which is completely understandable,” Jaffer said. “They don’t want to come to me with questions, which they should. I have an open-door policy. Everyone has my phone number and email.”
Jaffer said “only a handful of residents” have to move from the building, depending on what size unit they need.
“The management office and relocation team are helping them move,” she said. “They are being completely helped.”
Phone and email messages for Kinraich Tuesday and Wednesday were not returned.
Lauren Meyer, special assistant to the mayor, said “the city has been working with the property manager of Coleman Towers since our meeting with residents on Jan. 24 in order to resolve some of the concerns that were raised by residents.”
Meyer said Simmons’ chief of staff, Bridget Fox, sent Jaffer and residents an email saying the health department will check air quality and complaints about rodents and garbage disposal; the police department will monitor reports of people who are not tenants sleeping in Coleman Towers; the fire marshal and building inspectors will do safety checks; and the administration will look into possible relief for electric bills.
A ‘war on poor people’
Tenants said they are living in chaos and their futures are uncertain.
A senior citizen, a Coleman Towers resident since 1997, said she is anxious about how she will get through construction and where she will end up. The woman, who fears retaliation if she uses her name, said she struggles with a chronic health condition.
“Right now the rooms are cold, there’s a lot of dust and noise, and the elevators are not working,” she said. “When I had a doctor’s appointment the firefighters had to come and take me down the stairs, and afterward they had to take me back up. It was embarrassing and scary.”
Terrence Dorsey, 39, said he’s lived at Coleman Towers all his life, but he doesn’t know what will happen next. He’s been switching apartments and dealing with faulty elevators.
He got trapped in one that stopped on the fifth floor and wouldn’t budge, Dorsey said. At first the doors wouldn’t open, but when they did he saw that construction workers had blocked the opening with a slab of wood.
“I had nowhere to go. The elevator wouldn’t move,” Dorsey said. “I had to kick out the piece of wood. There was no other choice.”
It’s not right that her constituents face such conditions, Campbell said.
“These are human beings; my neighbors,” Campbell said. “They shouldn’t have to live this way – a thing we keep saying over and over. I don’t know what we have to do to get people to realize there is a war on poor people.”