NORWALK, Conn. — Ralph Suarez Santos and Robert Pascarelli are on the warpath about what they describe as intolerable conditions at Cedar Court Senior Housing – bedbugs, rats, water that’s brown, water that is too cool for a soothing bath or to wash dishes well.
Other residents, who decline to be identified, downplayed the bedbug problem, blaming it on a resident who has too much stuff in her apartment and saying management has “sprayed and sprayed.” They also described poor water quality and temperature but were chiefly upset about drug deals happening in the parking lot at night. There are rats by the garbage bin, but a resident’s cat has been known to kill them, they said.
Santos and Pascarelli said the other residents are scared. Shortly after NancyOnNorwalk began asking about the complaints, the tenant association president, vice president and treasurer resigned from their positions. They declined to talk; Santos, tenant association secretary, said he’d been told he has a target on his back.
Cedar Court, located at 92 Cedar St., was built in 1978 and consists of 11 2-story buildings on 2.3 acres, housing 92 elderly apartments. There are 45 apartments for Section 8 tenants, who must prove their income is no more than 50% of Area Median Income (AMI), a 2015 Norwalk Redevelopment Agency document states; 23 of the apartments are for residents in the Housing Choice Voucher Program, at 80% AMI.
It’s owned by the Norwalk Housing Authority and Vesta Corporation in a “joint venture,” NHA Executive Director Adam Bovilsky said. “We both own a share of the property but under the terms of the deal Vesta manages the property.”
The pair bought it in 2015 from an LLC managed by Paula Conte.
Asked about the complaints, Bovilsky said, “As the NHA does not manage the property, we have no comment.”
NancyOnNorwalk sent a summary of the men’s complaint to Vesta Corporation, seeking a response. Vesta Corporation Assistant Vice President Ashley McLaughlin said the information was “of deep concern.”
“We strongly dispute the information you have received,” she said.
City officials say Vesta has been very responsive to complaints. State Rep. Travis Simms (D-140) said he agrees with Santos and Pascarelli and stands with the residents.
“No one should have to live in these conditions,” Simms wrote. “I have visited the homes of several residents that live at Cedar Court and I’ve personally witnessed the rats, bed bugs infestation as well as observed the brown water with a foul order. I’ve reach out to the health department and was informed that their aware of the complaints and concerns.”
State Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff (D-25) has not responded to multiple attempts to contact him. Simms provided a letter that he and Duff sent to Vesta CEO Arthur Greenblatt in late December, asking that “serious and pervasive conditions at Cedar Court” be addressed, saying that they’ve asked before. They said:
“Specifically, we are aware of:
- “Bed bug infestations in several units
- “Rats found on the property
- “Poor water quality
- “Failure to return deposits to former tenants who have moved
- “Refusal to rent to certain individuals who have spoken up about the aforementioned issues.
“Clearly, past half measures have not ensured an acceptable quality of life for these residents. We ask that you take full, measurable and results-based steps to remedy these issues. Further, we ask for regular updates from Vesta on the progress of eliminating these problems.”
“We look forward to receiving answers and renewed commitment to the people of Cedar Court,” Simms said April 14.
“The Norwalk Health Department takes all complaints and inquiries seriously and follows up accordingly,” Norwalk Director of Health Deanna D’Amore said in an email. “Mayor Rilling also brought this to our attention last fall which prompted additional follow up from our staff. We worked with the property management as well as the local utility company during the investigation. This resulted in multiple treatments and corrective actions. Vesta was responsive in addressing the concerns we raised.”
‘I went through hell’
Santos reached out to Paul Cantor, a citizen, in March. Cantor alerted NancyOnNorwalk.
“I’ve been in shelters, I lived in ghettos. I know what it is to be out in the street, in the sense of ‘this is nothing new to me’ in a ways. But I’ve been in worse places that treated people better than these people are doing here,” Santos said.
Pascarelli, a retired Norwalk Police officer and a heart transplant recipient, said he’s lived in Cedar Court for four years. He specifically asked about insects before moving in, but, “I wasn’t here a month and I saw a roach,” he said.
Pascarelli had appeared in a News12 segment about bedbugs in Cedar Court.
“I’m the whistleblower. And now they’re trying to evict me because I opened my mouth for the people,” he said.
He had thrown out $1,153 worth of belongings at 3 a.m. one day in late 2019 because he returned home from a trip and found bedbugs, he said, describing a janitor as having darted out of the apartment “because there were millions of them.” Vesta had promised to help with that cost but, “They never worked anything out with me. So I deducted the $1,153 from my rent.”
Then they wouldn’t accept his checks, he said.
Santos said he father was an exterminator and he knows what should be done. Everything in the apartment has to be removed, he said.
Vesta fumigates the apartment where the bedbugs have been seen and not all of the nearby apartments, he said.
Santos said he has a platform bed with drawers underneath. The first exterminator didn’t pull out the drawers, he said, producing video. The second exterminator did a better job.
In February 2020, Norwalk Health Department Housing Inspector Kyle Bader said the Health Department had contacted Cedar Court management and been told the entire building had been treated twice, two weeks apart. Work stopped on Santos apartment during the second treatment “due to Mr. Suarez Santos disagreement with the extermination procedure.”
Other residents said the bedbugs had been eliminated in all but one building, and blamed someone who has “a big planter” in her apartment and too much stuff. That resident lives under Pascarelli and next to Santos.
Her apartment was neat, clean and tidy the day NancyOnNorwalk visited. Suarez compared the unit to a museum; every piece of solid wood furniture in her living room had items on it and the petite woman twisted her body sideways to walk into her bedroom because of a screen she had up.
The exterminator “did an excellent job” on the bedbugs in September, she said. “But there were tons of them.”
The mattress was gone so the 84-year-old woman slept on the floor for two months, Suarez said. Then “the bedbugs bit her whole body up” so she moved to the bathtub.
She confirmed that. “I don’t want to sleep with the bugs,” she said. “I went to sleep (in the tub) and the faucet was leaking. I got up wet. I threw blanket in there, I threw sheets, all clothes, I slept in there.”
“I went through hell,” she said.
Since she can’t move all her stuff out for an extermination management should do it, Santos said.
Santos provided August emails sent by Dean O’Brien, Duff’s executive assistant for constituent issues. In there is a communication from Vesta.
“The reason for prolonged bedbug issues in building A was due to resident resistance, not being prepared for treatments, and residents unable to move their belongings,” Vesta said. “With the help of our pest control company and other services paid for by management, we were finally able to eradicate and control the bedbug issue.”
McLaughlin on Thursday expressed confidence the bedbug issue had been resolved.
“We maintain a relationship with a professional extermination company that is available for any pest related service, including treating and consistently monitoring for bed bugs,” McLaughlin said. “We have also utilized additional services, including highly-trained bed bug sniffing dogs. All of these services are at no additional charge to our residents. Since January we have received bed bug free reports from our extermination services, and have had no new resident complaints of bed bugs.”
On Saturday, Santos said his neighbor still has bedbugs and whenever he feels irritation on his skin, he checks to see if he’s been bit. He mops his floor once or twice a day with bleach to try to keep the bedbugs out.
“This has been going on for a year, or more,” he said.
SNEW: It’s not us
“The only time I’ve seen hot water was when Bob Duff came,” Santos said in mid-March. The water had been “coming out brown.”
“It’s been like that for months,” Pascarelli said.
The residents who were reluctant to talk also spoke of lukewarm or brown water. It’s been years and the water is never hot, a man said. He has to heat water on the stove to take a bath to relieve his back pain and he uses paper plates because the water isn’t warm enough to get grease off dishes.
You could put your hand under the running water for hours and never get burnt, he said.
Simms visited, smelled the water and said, “You’re drinking that?” Suarez said.
“I have to be buying the water,” Suarez said.
McLaughlin said water quality tests done by SNEW (South Norwalk Electric and Water) would show “we have no water quality issues at our community.”
SNEW Chief Executive Officer and General Manager Alan Huth said the water is fine when it reaches Cedar Court.
SNEW took two samples last year and after getting more complaints “decided to take one final set of samples where the water enters the buildings,” Huth wrote. “These samples prove once and for all that there is NO ISSUE with the water we are providing. This information has also been sent to the Norwalk Health Department so they are aware of the situation.”
It’s an issue internal to Cedar Court and “they specifically mentioned issues with a hot water heater,” Huth said. “…SNEW’s responsibility stops at the point of service which is the curb valve, we have no control or responsibility for substandard or aging internal plumbing systems.”
In mid-March, Pascarelli and Santos said a truck had been there recently to clean pipes. A plumber had been there for two days and “nothing has changed,” Pascarelli said.
Santos said Saturday that the water hasn’t been brown. It’s been hot two or three times, but not usually.
He’s taking his chances and drinking it, because it’s expensive to buy water, he said.
Government funded renovations
The residents who were reluctant to talk emphasized that Vesta had improved Cedar Court. New heaters and air conditioners made life more comfortable and heating bills were lower. The new windows were nice.
The 2015 Norwalk Redevelopment Agency document, a Community Block Development Grant (CDBG) application, mentions a then-planned $6 million renovation “including roofs, windows, common area flooring, ADA accessibility ramps and railings replacement, creation of UFAS units, installation of elevators and central air conditioning, and upgrades to the electrical service and interior units.”
“Funding for this major renovation will come from a variety of sources including mortgages, tax exempt bonds, land and city loans, a deferred developer fee, net operating income, federal distributed Low Income Tax Credits, state distributed Housing Tax Credit Contributions, Community Development Block Grant and Loan funding and Neighborhood Revitalization Zone program funding,” it states.
Residents suspect the money was not well spent. They accused Vesta of using “top-line” estimates to get the funding and then going with “the lowest people.”
“The paint was kind of like pudding, it was nice and thick. They watered it down,” one said.
The place was beautiful when Conte owned it, if there was a problem she jumped on it, long-term residents said. “We never had a bedbug.”
They said there’s been much turnover in the management office, no one stays long. There’s been six property managers since Vesta and NHA bought the place in 2015.
Now, “the scum of the earth” walks around because anyone can get in without the lengthy background checks they went through, which included fingerprinting and drug tests, they said, alleging drug deals in the parking lot: It’s 3 in the morning, a resident goes out to the lot, meets someone who has arrived by vehicle, talks briefly, and then walks away.
If you call the police, “By the time the cops get here, they’re gone. So then you look like a jackass because you called,” one said.
Sgt. Sofia Gulino explained in an email:
“The Norwalk Police Department always diligently follows up on information regarding narcotics activity received regarding throughout the city. Our Patrol Division, Special Services Division and Community Police Officers exchange information and work together on issues like these, and it is ongoing.
“The last call for service from 92 Cedar Street regarding any suspicious activity involving narcotics was on July 27, 2020. Prior to that there was a motor vehicle stop (officer-initiated) involving narcotics on January 6, 2020. There were no other calls for service in 2020 or to date in 2021 regarding suspicious persons/narcotics activity.
“More recently, to encourage our community members to voice concerns, and provide tips, under complete anonymity, we have rolled out our TIP411 app. This is an application which can be downloaded from the iPhone app store, Google Play store for Android, by text (to 847411 with NORWALKPD right before the tip itself). Additionally we have a telephone Tip line, 203-854-3111.”
Rats, poor maintenance, maybe mildew
“A lot of people say, look, there’s a beautiful place, which it this. But I mean, it’s like saying, ‘You look good on the outside, but you’re all rotten on the inside,’” Santos said.
He was homeless before moving in and it took him years to get the apartment, he said, bristling at the suggestion he needs it, as if he should accept the conditions like others do.
“Of course, I need this place,” he said. “I don’t feel like I have to be abused while I’m here, I’m here to live a peaceful life.”
It took Vesta a year to replace a broken latch on his door, he said. “These are the type of things that is going on here that somebody needs to hear and see.”
Another resident had water leaking into her bathroom, so management cut a hole in the ceiling so the water would leak into her tub, Santos and Pascarelli said. After two years, the leak was found upstairs and “finally,” someone came to patch the hole.
That was after a Duff visit, they said.
“Now what about the mold and mildew that’s up in that ceiling? They never replaced the sheetrock and took the insulation out. That poor woman is probably living in mold and mildew,” Pascarelli said. “We’re not troublemakers.”
“When Bob Duff came, he seen and he talked to other people, not just us,” Santos said. “And he noticed we were not lying. We had pictures. Then he said, he’s going to do something about it.”
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) is also involved, they said. Blumenthal’s spokespeople did not reply to an email.
Pascarelli said he has an outside staircase and was surprised recently to learn there was a light fixture overhead, “because the bulb’s been out that long.”
There’s a window on the landing that leaked whenever it rained or snowed and he pleaded to get it fixed, he said. “You know when they fixed it? About three weeks ago when I fell down the steps.”
“This is why somebody’s got to do something,” Santos said. “Right now we’re going through this, ‘OK, Vesta.’ How many more people could be going through this?”
McLaughlin, in her Thursday email, said “In regard to maintenance at our community, we are proud to say that all maintenance requests for residents who have allowed access to their apartment have been resolved. This is due to a tremendous amount of hard work by our staff during the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. The safety of our team and residents is our highest priority and we respect the rights of our residents to defer non-urgent maintenance matters until they feel comfortable having us in their apartments.”
Pascarelli and Santos talked about rats.
“Six months ago, the rats were walking in the hall, up and down, up and down, from the dumpster,” Pascarelli said. “Okay, you had a cat over there. Kathy’s cat must have killed 30 of them. That was our exterminator.”
The other residents said the cat got one rat.
“They wanted her to get rid of the cat,” Santos said. “Are you crazy?”
“They didn’t have any feed boxes out for rats until I complained,” Pascarelli said.
“We live like we’re in jail,” Santos said.
The most important thing people should know is they’re not going to stop, they said.
“We’re not troublemakers. We want to make it a peaceful place for these elderly people. They’re all afraid of them,” Pascarelli said.
“I come out of my house, I’m looking for a hitman,” he said, laughing. All my buddies say you better wear a vest. They don’t scare me. I don’t get scared that easily.”