Thursday, June 24, 2021

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Selectmen’s Branford Housing Authority Appointment Met with Controversy

With the GOP majority carrying the vote and the sole Democrat abstaining, Branford’s Board of Selectmen (BOS) has seated a new Branford Housing Authority (BHA) appointee, Robert Imperato, to fill the expired five-year-term of Tacie Lowe, who had served as BHA chair.

Lowe’s appointment expired April 30, 2021. On May 5, by a vote of 2-0-1, First Selectman Jamie Cosgrove (R) and selectwoman Angela Higgins (R) appointed Imperato. Selectman Ray Dunbar (D) abstained from the vote.

Ahead of the vote, Dunbar noted that, while he was confident Imperato could do the job, he was hesitant about making a quick confirmation; especially in light of a letter he said was received that day by email from the Connecticut Fair Housing Center. Dunbar said the email contained some statements which he felt would be prudent to have reviewed by Town attorney before taking any action on an appointment. Dunbar also read aloud a portion of the letter which stated, “...further obstruction and interference such as replacing existing board members with opponents of affordable housing development or otherwise giving voice to those attempting to derail this judicially sanctioned and contractually bound redevelopment only puts the Town in further legal jeopardy.”

Imperato, a Republican who currently serves with Branford’s Board of Finance, is a past elected member of the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) and ran for Branford’s 102nd State Representative seat in 2018. At that time, Imperato stated he supported keeping Parkside Village 1 as a complex serving the town’s seniors and disabled adults, and took a position against developers using housing law to override a town’s zoning rights.

Dunbar suggested the BOS postpone the BHA appointment question for two weeks.

“I’m worried about the Town being put in liability with the way this board is as a whole,” said Dunbar. “Maybe at some point in time, the whole board should be scrapped – they obviously can’t get along with each other; but I’m not sure putting one person in there is going to fix what’s in this letter...I think Bob can do a great job, but I think some of these things need to be answered.”

“It is clearly in our right and it is actually within our authority and our responsibility to appoint the members to the Housing Authority,” Cosgrove responded to Dunbar. “I’m aware of the letter you reference, but that should play no bearing on us fulfilling our obligation. A term has expired. It is the right of this board to appoint members to it. You stated that you have confidence in Mr. Imperato. [And] again, this is something that the board has been weighing in on for a while [as] far as the need for the members to conduct a productive meeting [that’s] open and transparent with civility...and I think we all have confidence that Mr. Imperato would fulfill that goal that we would like to see...I think all members do have a responsibility to carry out the work of the Housing Authority in a manner that the public and the residents can have confidence that they’re doing the work and fulfilling the mission of the Authority. But what is before us now is a term that has expired [so] I am comfortable moving forward, and I actually feel it is important to move forward at this time.”

BHA, Beacon and Parkside

As a public entity incorporated under Section 8-40 of the Connecticut General Statues, BHA was established by the Town in the 1970s to help serve the community’s low-income elderly population (and later, adults with disabilities) as the ownership entity of aging Parkside Village 1, which is in need of repair and compliance upgrades, at 115 South Montowese Street. BHA also owns Parkside Village 2, built in 1980 and serving a similar population on nearby Block Island Road.

As BHA chair, Lowe was working to comply with a 2016 (amended 2019) site development agreement made between BHA and developer Beacon Communities (MA) to redevelop Parkside Village 1. The agreement was first made under the purview of former BHA chair Douglas Denes, who served for some 20 years and was not reappointed in 2019. As it stands, the redevelopment of Parkside Village 1 will change the current make-up of 50 units (40 one-bedroom and 10 studio) for seniors and disabled adults to a newly constructed facility of 67 units creating a mix of one and two bedrooms homes, with 60 units to be tiered income affordable housing for all ages, as governed by under CT General Statute Section 8-30g affordable housing (§ 8-30g).

As noted by Lowe in an 11-page document submitted to the BOS,“... within the past month, BHA and Beacon have obtained formal approvals for private equity funding and state bonding worth $20 million, as well as final zoning approval for Parkside I. These major strides will allow our long-planned public-private partnership to break ground this fall.” Beacon plans to begin the work in September, 2021.

Beacon’s association with BHA goes back to an original plan, submitted in 2016 to the Town, to redevelop Parkside 1 for senior and disabled housing. However, the application submitted to Branford’s Planning and Zoning Commission (PZC) was withdrawn by BHA in October 2016, with Denes citing a lack of public and Town staff support. Beacon then returned with a three-part application which sought, in part, to create an Assisted Housing District under § 8-30g. Due to the submission of a citizens’ petition, the PZC applied a complex super-majority voting rule ultimately resulting in the application’s denial in January, 2018. The PZC’s denial based on the petition was later overturned in October, 2018 by a Hartford Superior Court decision. A modified application was resubmitted to the Town and received the PZC’s approval, with conditions, in June of 2019. Beacon then brought the PZC to court over a condition relating to permission for use of Town property; and an October 2020 Superior Court land use decision came down in favor Beacon, ordering the PZC to modify the condition. In January 2021, the Town’s petition for an appeal of the court decision was denied. On April 1, with 4 of 5 members voting in the affirmative but “under protest,” the PZC unanimously approved a resolution containing the court-ordered modifications to the Town’s approved Parkside Village 1 redevelopment site plan and coastal site plan, allowing the project to move forward. On March 25, Beacon received news the project had been awarded $1,800,000 in federal low-income housing tax credits (LIHTC) for the redevelopment, to be issued by the state through the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority (CHFA). In April, Gov. Ned Lamont hailed the upcoming state bonding approval of affordable housing funding which includes $3,795,000 for Branford’s Parkside Village 1 redevelopment. With additional investments and funding, the project is now fully financed, according to Beacon.

Changes to BHA

The five-member makeup of the BHA has changed greatly since 2019, when Cosgrove and then-selectman the late Joseph Higgins (R) voted 2-1 over Democratic selectman Jack Ahern not to re-appoint Denes and another BHA member, Michael Calter. Currently, those appointments are filled by Cosgrove administration appointees Mark Colello and Gerry Mastreangelo, who continue to serve together with treasurer Kate Collins and a representative elected by Parkside tenants (currently, secretary Paula Humphrey, voted in as of November, 2020, to fill a term vacated by a tenant due to illness).

In January 2021, the BOS was asked to review a petition brought by a citizen, Todd Petrowski, calling for an examination of past and present living conditions at the Parkside Village 1 housing complex and its oversight by the BHA. The selectmen’s pursuant discussion with BHA members Lowe, Colello and Mastreangelo also brought to light an apparent communications rift among the BHA members. The BOS then asked BHA to try to work toward resolution among its members; with a future meeting with the BOS to take place regarding that request. That meeting took place on April 7 with Lowe, Colello and Mastreangelo in attendance. At that time, Colello and Mastreangelo expressed continuing concerns about access to BHA information; as well as discussing input received from residents saying they did not feel safe or comfortable changing from the current type of housing complex to an all-ages development. Following that meeting, Lowe submitted an 11-page document to the BOS detailing her responses to questions raised April 7.

On April 7, Cosgrove contended to Lowe that, while BHA has shown it cannot continue to support facility needs and fixes at Parkside Village 1 based on low revenues from current renters (who are now using about 30 percent of their income for rent, due to state cuts of subsidy programs Elderly Rental Assistance Programs, or ERAP; and Regular Rental Assistance, or RAP); BHA should have reached out to state legislators about working to reinstitute ERAP and RAP on behalf of the residents. Cosgrove also said that, while the Town does not financially support BHA and Parkside, past administrations have assisted with the likes of securing Small Town Economic Assistance Program (STEAP) grants; but BHA has not approached his administration for similar assistance. Additionally, Cosgrove reiterated his concern that, while BHA and Beacon have confirmed current senior residents at Parkside Village 1 will continue to be housed once the new complex is built; there are no such guarantees for the needs of future senior low-income residents in a town with an aging population; ultimately causing Branford to lose 50 units of current affordable housing for low-income seniors.

Lowe responded that BHA and Beacon would not have legally qualified for LIHTC funding if the redeveloped Parkside Village 1 continued “... to be discriminatory by age.” In her April 20th correspondence submitted to the BOS, Lowe further noted BHA had considered a wide range of possible funding sources and found LIHTC funding to be the “only” option providing the money required to make necessary improvements at Parkside 1.

In the same document, which she addressed to Cosgrove, Lowe noted, “I understand that you recognize that Parkside I’s current residents will, pursuant to an agreement to which the residents are a signatory, have the right to relocate to the new building. Your crucial worry, however, is that the redevelopment plan may leave future low-income Branford residents with reduced access to affordable housing. I appreciate your concern but want to be very clear that the new Parkside will only increase access to affordable housing in Branford.”

According to CHFA, the redeveloped Parkside Village 1 property will have 15 units for households with incomes up to 25 percent of Area Median Income (AMI), 27 units for those with incomes of up to 50 percent AMI, 18 units for those with incomes of up to 60 percent AMI and 7 market rate units. As noted by Cosgrove on April 7, in Branford, an AMI of 25 percent currently equates to an annual salary of approximately $20,000.

On April 7, Cosgrove also asked, based on income level, how many units of the new facility will give current residents of Parkside Village 1 the same opportunity to qualify for housing. Lowe responded that 20 percent of housing at the new development will be available for qualification at an income level lower than Parkside’s currently existing level; and that all current Parkside residents will be allowed to stay on “until they chose to leave Parkside.”

“That sounds like the mix is going to change,” interjected Mastreangelo. “So eventually, this will end up being 80 percent affordable housing, and 20 percent seniors.”

“We cannot discriminate by age,” Lowe replied. “We cannot, in the future, rent based on people’s age.”

Lowe has also expressed to the BOS the importance of fulfilling obligations made by BHA to the state and Beacon. As she wrote in her request to be reappointed, submitted April 24, “It is critical that the Authority uphold its commitments to the State of Connecticut and the development partners by ensuring that the redevelopment proceeds. Failure to do so would not only put the Authority in legal and financial jeopardy and expose the Town to liability, too. It would also put Parkside’s residents and the Town at serious risk of losing Parkside I altogether.”

In addition to her request to the BOS to be re-appointed to the BHA, Lowe’s bid for reappointment was endorsed in writing by Branford's Democratic Nominating Committee and by Beacon CEO Dara Kovel.

Kovel’s letter to the selectmen noted, in part, “As the BHA’s long time development partner, we do not understand the motivation of switching board members at this stage with only a few months to go before the start of construction, particularly since the BHA and Town do not have discretion to follow any path other than redevelopment. Appointing a new board member who is on record as opposing the redevelopment is hard to read as anything other than another attempt to stop the project at a moment immediately following the court order granting land use approvals and the State of Connecticut’s award of funding for the redevelopment. If the project were to fail to proceed at this time due to the new board member or other Town action, Beacon Communities’ damages would be no less than $5 million for expenses, time and opportunity costs, as well as attorney’s fees. This sum does not account for the cost to the residents for depriving them of a better, safer home.”

Documents submitted to the BOS for the May 5 meeting can be viewed online via Dropbox with the May 5, 2021 BOS agenda at www.branford-ct.gov

Correction: An error in editing caused the word "not" to be missing from the following sentence, which also has been corrected in this story:  "At that time, Colello and Mastreangelo expressed continuing concerns about access to BHA information; as well as discussing input received from residents saying they did not feel safe or comfortable changing from the current type of housing complex to an all-ages development."


Pam Johnson covers news for Branford and North Branford for Zip06. Email Pam at p.johnson@shorepublishing.com.

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