Legal experts and fair housing advocates are warning Branford leaders that failure to redevelop a public housing complex would result in multimillion dollar legal expenses for the town.
Despite the caution, First Selectman James Cosgrove appointed a new member to the Branford Housing Authority Wednesday night, and advocates say that action may be enough to derail the redevelopment of the building, Parkside I.
“The fair housing laws, both state and federal, make it illegal to deny or otherwise make housing unavailable,” said Erin Kemple, executive director of Connecticut Fair Housing. “In this particular case, if they deliberately put in someone who they know will vote against the redevelopment, then it is pretty clear they are making housing unavailable.”
Parkside I is a property managed by Beacon Communities, a developer that is also seeking to renovate the outdated and inaccessible housing units. The Branford Housing Authority recently secured state funding to redevelop the building and add new units.
However, adding more units means expanding the number of residents in public housing — who may not be seniors or people with disabilities. It has mired the project in controversy for the past several years. The Branford Housing Authority is a five-person board. Two of the board members have been opponents of the redevelopment while the other two favored it.
Tacie Lowe served as the chair of the housing authority until her term expired Wednesday night at the Board of Selectmen meeting. She did seek a new term. Cosgrove replaced her with Robert Imperato, an outspoken opponent of current affordable housing laws.
Imperato is a former candidate for state representative from the Republican Party who spoke out about the Parkside I development on the campaign trail in 2018: “We have a law here that allows for-profit out-of-state developers to steamroll local decision-making and local control of our neighborhoods and that needs to change now.”
Prior to the meeting, Kemple wrote to the first selectman, Cosgrove, outlining the ways that a decision to halt the development would be costly for the town. The letter indicated there are multiple ways towns can violate the Fair Housing Act including “delaying tactics” and “various forms of discouragement.”
“The record is already replete with such tactics and discouragement,” Kemple wrote. “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.”
According to Kemple’s letter, the opposition to the redevelopment is “discriminating” against families with children in order to keep the residence strictly for seniors.
Following the Board of Selectmen meeting on Wednesday, the newly sworn-in Imperato was selected to run the housing authority meeting despite the more experienced vice chair being present. Imperato pledged that the board would not be a political forum.
“This board does not have any political agenda,” Imperato said. “We drop the R’s, we drop the D’s, we drop the U’s and work for the housing authority.”
Dara Kovel, CEO of Beacon Communities, said her business has a site-development agreement with the housing authority which serves as a contract binding the town to move forward with the project, regardless of who sits on the five-person board.
“We are now ready to move forward with the project, so contractually the housing authority needs to allow us to make that happen,” Kovel said.
Kovel said that the addition of Imperato to the board is a sign that the redevelopment may not go on.
The outgoing chair, Lowe, said that she spent several hours on the phone with Imperato and she was impressed with the questions he asked. Despite her confidence in him, Lowe was confused why he was selected to run the meeting on his first night on the commission.
“I don’t know how you become chair on the first night of the commission but he was the chair,” Lowe said.
Branford is just one of many primarily white suburban towns in Connecticut embroiled in the fight over affordable housing and the fight for local control of zoning codes.
“The crisis of affordable housing in the state is partly due to this type of resistance and behavior that happens in many communities whether it is out of fear or lack of understanding,” Kovel said. “It is very, very hard to get affordable housing approved in many of our 169 towns.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this of this article mistakenly reported that Lowe did not seek another term when she did seek another term. The article has been corrected.