Katy Slininger could see the crumbling plaster above her son’s Lego set. She could see what appeared to be moss creeping up the wall of her apartment’s basement as moisture leaked in. She could see the gaps where the wood floor hadn’t quite been finished.
But she and other tenants in her Putnam apartment complex, a renovated old mill that opened in 2020, were also worried most about what they couldn’t see: a lack of ventilation in the apartment, a suspicion of poor air quality in their homes.
Then, this winter, the local health department found lead paint in some areas and several units with lead dust. Families took their children to get tested, and some of the youngest had elevated levels of lead in their systems.
Tenants filed a lawsuit against the owners of the complex in March. Although several governmental agencies played a part in the renovations and inspections of the apartment complex, it’s not clear who was ultimately responsible for making sure it was lead-free inside. Now, the tenants are left in the lurch.
Meanwhile, several tenants have organized a rent strike, more litigation is likely, and the local health department inspected the complex and ordered the lead cleaned up, while the state is working to get a contract to do a final lead assessment. The federal Environmental Protection Agency is also investigating the apartment complex and could levy fines against the owner, a spokesperson said via email.
By outside appearances, the Lofts at Cargill Falls Mill are a dream. They’re in a walkable portion of downtown Putnam with easy access to trails, a bike shop nearby and a stream burbling through the center of the complex.
The apartments have a hipster-industrial look, with exposed stone on the walls and original wood floors.
For Jared Brong’s family, it seemed like a good deal. And the only deal. In 2021, when they were apartment hunting, there were very few apartments on the market.
These, he said, were advertised as luxury apartments, and with a young daughter and another child on the way, they wanted the best for their kids.
The problems started the night they moved in. It rained, and water trickled in through leaks in five of their windows. They collected buckets of water that night, and despite repeated requests for maintenance, the problem persisted for months.
Brong and his spouse started to get concerned about mold because everyone in the household was having symptoms — brain fog, consistent congestion and headaches. After time dragged on and repairs weren’t finished, Brong decided to call the Northeast District Department of Health.
The local health department’s ensuing inspections found lead dust, and Brong got his kids tested after the department alerted residents to the issue. His daughter’s lead levels weren’t of concern, but his son’s were too high.
“He had just begun crawling on the floors, so this was with being exposed just like weeks before,” Brong said in an interview.
The family purchased foam play pads from Target to cover the floor and encased the wooden beams throughout the apartment in plastic wrap to keep their kids from further exposure until they could find a new place to live.
“It was scary,” he said. “It was frustrating that they weren’t doing anything about it.”
By that time, the rental market was even tighter than it was when they moved into the Lofts. And Brong had the added stress of worrying about lead dust in the houses they looked at — he was concerned they’d be exposed again.
They wound up buying a house and moved out of the complex, but fear of lead was on Brong’s mind throughout the whole process. The couple purchased a house built by a family friend, so Brong could know for sure that he didn’t use lead or asbestos.
But the battles persist for the other residents of the Lofts.
A lawsuit brought by current and former tenants against the Lofts alleges that some of the families and children living there were harmed by the conditions. The residents’ current lawsuit aims to get more information about who was involved with the apartment renovations. They plan to file another lawsuit later that focuses more on the harm caused to residents, said their attorney, Scott Camassar.
Young kids in the building were tested at their doctors’ offices, and some results showed elevated levels of lead in their systems, according to tenants and their attorney. Lead poisoning has an array of symptoms including stomach pain, sluggishness and developmental delays, and it is particularly harmful to young children. Much of the danger, especially to babies, is that they could get lead dust on their hands while they crawl, put their hands in their mouths and ingest the dust.
Over the past couple of years, Connecticut has put more money into addressing the issue of lead paint exposure, which is particularly important in a state with older housing stock.
Connecticut law requires every child between the ages of 9 months and 35 months get tested for lead poisoning each year. The state also has requirements that all units in an apartment with children under 6 get tested if one child tests above the normal limits for lead poisoning.
The EPA is exploring increasing penalties for lead dust exposure nationwide.
The proposal, announced in early July, would reduce the dust-lead hazard standards from 10 micrograms per square foot for floors and 100 micrograms for window sills to any reportable level greater than zero “in recognition of the fact that there is no level of lead in dust that has been found to be safe for children,” the Biden administration’s press release said. Dust-lead hazard standards are used to determine when lead abatement is needed in buildings built before 1978.
The amount of lead in dust that can remain after abatement would also be cut down under the proposal.
“It’s insane that a young family can move into a newly renovated apartment in 2020 or 2021 and then have their baby suffer lead poisoning,” Camassar said.
Several of the tenants at the Putnam unit have formed a union and started a rent strike to protest conditions at the complex. They’re paying rent to the court following local health department inspections. Connecticut allows tenants to pay rent to the court, rather than to their landlord, in cases where city officials have determined the housing doesn’t meet certain living standards. If repairs aren’t made within 21 days, tenants can file a lawsuit, then pay rent to the court.
Putnam tenants say they are frustrated at the lack of communication from management and how long it took to get test results back from the local health department. Slininger said waiting for the test results from the health department was stressful for all the tenants.
“We weren’t getting any updates, any communication,” she said. “We were obviously terrified, because we had no idea.”
A January statement from the Northeast District Department of Health says letters noting the presence of lead and asking to schedule inspections went out to tenants in late December.
The local department initially found lead in a brick wall, baseboard, closet door and a wood floor filler. Several tenants in the lawsuit allege that elevated levels of lead were later found in their apartments.
“We are committed to … protect the health and well-being of the tenants of The Lofts at Cargill Falls Mill,” said Sue Starkey, NDDH Director of Health, in the statement. “The role of NDDH in this response is to conduct investigations to identify lead hazards; write orders to the property owner to remedy the problem; and approve and monitor the plan for correction that is submitted to us.”
Slininger had particular problems with moisture and crumbling pieces of walls and ceiling that fall in her home. Sometimes small bits of the wall flake off and fall on her 4-year-old’s toys, mixing with his toys or grinding into the carpet. Fleas have also migrated into her apartment from other units in recent weeks, biting her son, she said.
The 82-unit property opened its doors to tenants in 2020 after several years of renovations. The local health department’s reports about toxic levels of lead surfaced during the winter.
While management has started work to cover the areas containing lead paint, tenants don’t think it’s enough. Communication has been infrequent, union members said. And there are still several spots where moisture seeps into the building.
The state Department of Housing is contracting with the management company to do a full lead assessment and determine next steps. An agency spokesperson said they understand the original lead violations that occurred over the winter are “no longer active.”
The Connecticut Mirror conducted interviews with tenants, visited the site and reviewed documents from the local health department to confirm some of the problems including moisture, gaps in the floor and debris from the walls and ceiling crumbling.
The lawsuit filed in Superior Court is in the discovery phase, which could take several months. Initial filings from complainants asked for a wide range of documents as tenants try to figure out who was involved in opening the complex without first getting rid of the lead.
The former owner was shot at the mill several years ago, and his killer was never caught. Work on the project to convert the mill into apartments slowed after his death.
Tenant union members haven’t seen or heard from Leanne Parker, his wife and the current owner, in months, although she’s retained an attorney. Messages left at the apartment office and with Parker’s attorney, Jen Booker, weren’t returned.
Tenants are frustrated they weren’t protected, even though much of the work to renovate the mill was government-funded. The complex benefitted from a myriad of state and federal grants and tax credits, including $5 million under the Competitive Housing Assistance for Multifamily Properties and at least $7.4 million in tax credits. The National Park Service and State Historic Preservation Office also noted it as a historically significant location, according to reporting by the Norwich Bulletin.
While some improvements have been made at the complex, and the lawsuit is ongoing, they still wonder: How could this have happened?
How were things done?
The project at the old mill was touted as a way to preserve history while providing housing the state desperately needs. It was set to have a hydro-electric generator powered by a nearby stream. Early on, the director of development for the project told a local paper that it was the oldest mill in the country — one building dated back to the 1730s.
Some of the units were also earmarked as affordable and were open to people with housing subsidies that cover portions of their rent. Because of the affordability and the historic preservation, several state agencies were involved, although it’s not clear whether there was a mechanism in place to ensure there wasn’t lead inside the apartments.
The state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the Department of Economic and Community Development both offered state-sponsored help to remediate the property.
DECD provided $750,000 under the Municipal Grant Program to conduct site-wide hazardous building material inspection and testing, abatement of asbestos-containing material, and shoring up buildings, said Jim Watson, a DECD spokesman.
“The lead abatement work was handled by the property owner through contractors hired by them,” Watson said in an email. “It is also DECD’s understanding that the lead abatement work was conducted after the DECD-funded contractors were off the site after completing the DECD-funded scope of work.”
DECD’s only lead-related work was handling “limited lead contaminated building material waste” that was created through the asbestos abatement and the tasks related to shoring up buildings. Town-contracted workers ensured that the lead-contaminated building material waste was removed, Watson added.
Earlier in the redevelopment process, the property was a part of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s Voluntary Remediation Program to get rid of pollutants, such as lead, that could spread to the soil or water.
The program typically focuses on environmental factors — what’s outside the buildings and could affect the land, said Ray Frigon, assistant director of the department’s remediation division.
There are some exceptions if the department finds evidence that contaminants from inside a building may get outside, Frigon added. Properties either apply to the program or DEEP can approach them to let them know they need remediation.
DEEP conducts an analysis of the contaminants and helps the property owner figure out how to best clean it up. Sometimes the work of cleaning it up is handed over to a Licensed Environmental Professional Program.
Frigon said DEEP frequently works on residential properties and that converting old buildings into apartments is a good way to help address the state’s lack of housing. The Putnam apartments were previously a textile manufacturer.
“We are very fortunate to have public funding from the state of Connecticut and the federal government to accelerate the investigation and cleanup of these sites, which is absolutely fantastic,” he said. “These sites have infrastructure in place already — sewer, water, electricity.”
But Brong said reading about the DEEP remediation was one of the reasons he felt comfortable moving his young family into an older building. He thought the inside of the buildings, where his kids would play, eat and sleep, had been properly remediated too.
Frigon said the Department of Public Health is responsible for monitoring risk factors such as lead inside apartment buildings. But DPH spokesman Chris Boyle said DPH doesn’t inspect for lead because that is the role of the local health director or a hired lead consultant.
DPH did go to the site once to audit the abatement work “and found no violations,” Boyle said.
“DPH has not conducted any inspections at Cargill Falls apartments, as our role is to determine if companies that conduct lead abatement work are performing as required in regulations,” he added. “Local health departments have the authority to conduct inspections for lead paint hazards.”
State statutes require an inspection if any child under 6 has certain levels of lead in their blood.
DPH also has not issued any warnings or fines at the Putnam apartments and leaves notification to families if their children have risked exposure to lead to local health officials, Boyle said.
“There is no regulation that requires inspections for lead hazards in rentals prior to move in,” Boyle said. “DPH does have a standing protocol with the Department of Housing which includes guidance on using licensed lead abatement contractors and/or EPA RRP certified firms (for abatement or remediation). Both procedures require clearance dust wipes being utilized at the end of the job, if lead was included in the scope of work.”
The local health department inspected several units earlier this year and found hazardous lead in several spots. In January, inspections found more than 70 instances of toxic levels of lead in paint in eight units and some common areas of three buildings. Wipes of dust found more lead.
“We know that recent news about toxic lead levels found at the Lofts at Cargill Falls Mill has caused concern, and we remain committed to keeping all those impacted informed and educated,” said Linda Colangelo, NDDH education and communications coordinator, in a press release. “Lead can be present in mansions and mills, and in buildings and homes built before 1978. We want people to understand the causes and dangers of lead exposure and the steps they can take to reduce their risk. It’s important to note that most children exposed to lead do not appear to be sick, so a blood lead test is the best way to know if your child has had an exposure.”
The local department required lead abatement work in the areas, and tenants say some work has been done at the property.
In May, the Department of Housing issued $72,000 from the Healthy Homes Fund to assess the situation, said DOH director of government affairs and communications Aaron Turner in an email at the time.
“DOH continues to monitor the situation, and we understand that according to the Northeast District Department of Health, the original notice of violation issued in February 2023 is no longer active,” said spokesperson Meghan Bard in an emailed statement in late July.
DOH is finalizing a contract with the property management company to do a full lead assessment “to affirm that all issues are known and addressed,” Bard said
As they wait for progress on their lawsuit, more than a dozen households in the apartment are on a rent strike.
A rent strike is one of the sharpest tools a tenant union has at its disposal. Connecticut law offers six months of protection against retaliation for renters who form unions and has a process by which tenants can pay rent to the court.
Rent strikes have been used historically to demand better living conditions. The first rent strikes in the United States date back to at least the 1830s. Tenants went on rent strikes at various times throughout the country’s history, including following the Great Depression.
In 2020, rent strikes increased as many tenants struggled in the early parts of the pandemic. Many in New York City organized to go on a strike, marking one of the largest tenant organizing movements in decades.
Connecticut has seen a wave of new tenant unions forming over the past couple of years. They’re being formed in cities and towns statewide, drawing attention during the most recent legislative session to poor housing conditions and rent that’s increasing at unsustainable levels.
Many union members organized to push for “Cap the Rent” legislation, which would have limited how much landlords can increase rent annually. The bill did not get out of committee but drew large crowds to public hearings.
Union organizers have said that if landlords don’t want to listen to tenants’ concerns, they may have to go on rent strikes.
Slininger said about 17 households in the complex have participated in the rent strike. They’re paying rent into the court. That number has grown over the past couple of months, and while some have moved out, their money is still in the court’s accounts rather than the landlord’s.
Their union formed in January. Now, the halls of the apartment complex have signs pointing tenants to meetings and letting residents know which doors they can knock on if they want information about joining.
It’s a new experience for many members, Slininger said. Tenants are leaving quickly, meaning the union will have to work hard to keep its numbers up, she said.
The statewide Connecticut Tenants Union last month went through a process to formalize their organization. The Cargill Tenants Union is a chapter of the statewide branch and has opened its membership to any Putnam renters. They have about 65 members total.
“It’s just becoming obvious that we’re bleeding tenants,” she said. “So if we’re going to maintain any form of collective power, we have to bring in some more people.”
Lately, they’ve been successfully fighting rent increases for tenants whose leases are being renewed, Slininger said. That’s one of the major focuses of the statewide organization as rents have increased in Connecticut at rates renters say they often can’t afford.
Without the union, she and others who joined aren’t sure the tenants would have gotten much help. And Brong is hopeful that the work, as well as the distress families have suffered, will spark change in Putnam and statewide.
“I just hope that this is resolved for the people that live there and will continue to live there in the future and this kind of serves as a lesson at least for the local community,” Brong said. “They should probably make some changes in the way things are done.”