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Stuck in squalor: Unsafe Santa Rosa apartments and lapse by city fuel tenants' lawsuit

(From right) Emmanuel Valdovinos, 9, his brother Aaron, 10, mother Juana Paniagua and sister Maritere, 5, sit together at their new apartment in Santa Rosa on Sunday, August 2, 2015. (BETH SCHLANKER / The Press Democrat)

ANGELA HART, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

On and off for most of his young life, Aaron Valdovinos awoke during the night with coughing fits. He couldn’t play outside with his friends and he required numerous hits each day from his inhaler, on top of other strong asthma drugs he used, to relax his airway.

Aaron’s parents, Juana Paniagua and Eric Valdovinos, took him to the doctor repeatedly for years for his asthma, a chronic condition he was predisposed to at birth.

The boy’s condition grew worse, however, from breathing toxic air in a home where he’d lived from the time he was 1 until he was 10 last year, his doctors said.

The northeast Santa Rosa apartment that Paniagua and her family called home until last January had walls that were steeped with high levels of dangerous mold, according to tests included in city records. Other asthma triggers, including rats and cockroaches, plagued the apartment.

(Interactive timeline created by George Buce / The Press Democrat)

“Aaron had a bad start in life — his lungs were injured from the start — but living in that place was like throwing gas on the fire,” said Douglas Jimenez, a physician at Vista Family Health Center in Santa Rosa, who has been Valdovinos’ primary care doctor since he was a toddler. “Kids in living environments exposed to asthma triggers have more asthma flares, and for the first 10 years of life, that’s where he was.”

The discovery of the poor indoor air quality and its contribution to health problems in Paniagua’s family — others also reported respiratory problems — came as a jarring revelation for the 38-year-old mother of three.

The family, along with eight others who lived in the 10-unit Bennett Valley complex at 4050 Hoen Ave., called the Bennett Valley Townhomes, are now part of a high-profile lawsuit against the property’s previous owners, Tadgh T. McSweeney and Kathleen Wood, and its current owners, David Silver and Jamie Clifford.

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The suit seeks unspecified financial damages for a wide range of substandard living conditions that the plaintiffs say went unfixed at the site for years.

The problems persisted through two sets of property owners, the plaintiffs allege, and after an inspection by a Santa Rosa code enforcement officer who signed off on repairs that were never made.

“It was very serious, but we were afraid — we were all afraid,” Paniagua said, referring to her family and the eight others who lived in the building.

Through their attorney, the former owners acknowledged the building had its share of problems, with code violations stretching back to 2005, city records show. But past code violations had been cleared prior to the sale, said Scott Phillips, the San Rafael-based lawyer for McSweeney and Wood, who owned the building since 2006. They declined interview requests.

“It was far from pristine. It was an old property that needed work and my clients didn’t have the resources to do all the work, so they sold it,” Phillips said.

The new owners claim, through their attorney, that they did not know about the extensive substandard housing conditions at the building prior to buying the complex for $1.45 million on Sept. 5, 2014. That month, they issued a 45 percent rent increase for all units.

“Yes, my clients were going to go in, fix it up and raise the rents, but that’s all you can blame them for,” said Timothy Wilson, a San Francisco-based attorney who began representing Silver and Clifford after the tenants’ attorneys initiated the lawsuit. “My guys are not slumlords, not even close. They got sold a bad piece of property.”

Silver and Clifford declined to be interviewed.

“They bought it as-is,” said Phillips, the former owners’ attorney.

In addition to the insects, vermin and mold in the unit rented by Paniagua’s family, the entire apartment building had faulty wiring, defective plumbing fixtures, leaking roofs and heating problems, according to claims in the tenants’ lawsuit filed early last year in Sonoma County Superior Court.

“They thought we were undocumented. They thought they could ignore us,” Paniagua said in an August 2015 interview. “They thought they could throw us out without us doing anything about it.”

Paniagua and her family, along with the eight others at the complex, were forced to move out last January after the city red-tagged the building, deeming it hazardous to the tenants’ health and safety. On Thursday, Sonoma County Judge Rene Chouteau is set to meet with both sides in the case, which is advancing toward trial.

Edie Sussman, a leading Santa Rosa tenants’ rights attorney who is one of four lawyers representing the former residents, said a favorable ruling for her clients could set a new bar for substandard housing cases in Sonoma County.

To begin with, the problems at the Hoen Avenue apartment building, and the way in which substandard living conditions reported by tenants were mishandled by Santa Rosa officials, led to a significant but little-noticed shakeup last year in city government.

It also resulted in a shift ordered by higher-ups at City Hall in the way code enforcement officers handle such situations — an informal policy that one veteran code enforcement officer said has put tenants at additional risk.

On a broader level, the case, one of the worst in Sonoma County history, illustrates a complex and growing problem in Sonoma County, where short-staffed code enforcement divisions are dealing with ballooning caseloads involving substandard housing conditions. The workloads leave little time or ability for inspectors to carry out regular checks and force repairs in dilapidated buildings, officials say.

The lack of follow-up inspections has led to inadequate enforcement, housing rights advocates say, while soaring rents throughout the region have left affected tenants throughout the county stuck in squalid conditions with nowhere to go. The poor living environments affect low-income and Latino families most of all, according to public records and dozens of interviews with tenants, their advocates and government officials.

Many tenants are forced to take matters into their own hands, but legal recourse remains elusive for most, attorneys said.

“So many people we see and hear from don’t have the ability or means to prove their case and force the repairs that are needed,” said Sussman, who specializes in slum housing cases. “Without code enforcement to back them up, and unless they have legal counsel, they’re going to lose. They’re just going to lose.”

The Hoen Avenue tenants finally sought legal help after Silver and Clifford issued a 45 percent rent increase in September 2014. Over the next two months, the four attorneys who now represent all 35 of the building’s former residents made repeated requests to the property’s owners asking them for repairs, as well as to Santa Rosa code enforcement officials, asking them to investigate the alleged problems. Multiple tenants from the complex had complained numerous times to city officials for at least a year prior, city records compiled in the lawsuit show. Tenants, in interviews, say their complaints to landlords and the city stretched over a longer period.

On Jan. 12, 2015, a year after city inspectors had first confirmed problems at the property, officials posted an eviction notice for all nine inhabited units because of unsafe conditions at the property, including toxic types and levels of mold. Inspectors in the past year also discovered asbestos in walls, floors and ceilings throughout the building.

“Once we saw the magnitude of the elevated mold counts in there, it was a no-brainer. ... I said, ‘This has got to stop now,’” said Mark Setterland, Santa Rosa’s chief building official, who oversaw the code enforcement division until November. “Then I heard anecdotal evidence that there may be some health symptoms in people that might be related to mold exposure and I said, ‘We can’t take a chance, we have to stop this now.’”

However, in November 2014, three months before tenants were ordered to leave the apartment, Santa Rosa officials discovered that a city inspector had earlier signed off on repairs ordered by the city that in fact had never been made.

The January 2014 order was to fix problems with insect and rodent infestations, buckling floors, overflowing toilets, broken heaters and damp rooms causing extensive mold. In court documents, the code enforcement officer, Steve Sparacio, said he closed the case in April 2014.

An email from Sparacio on April 11 to the property manager at the time, reads “Yes, I’ve signed off on all 10 units.”

In July 2014, he logged into the city’s online case-tracking system and recorded that repairs had been made.

A screen shot of the code enforcement file dated July 7, 2014 reads “Closed.”

Attorneys for Silver and Clifford, the current property owners, provided the documents to The Press Democrat after receiving them from Santa Rosa code enforcement officials.

In fact, Sparacio had inspected none of the units to ensure repairs were completed, according to Michael Reynolds, Sparacio’s supervisor.

“He screwed up,” Reynolds said. “He didn’t adequately inspect the property originally, in January 2014, and he did not follow up to ensure the repairs were made. Instead, he just took the property manager’s word that the work was completed.”

Sparacio, who declined to be interviewed, was at the time juggling more than 100 code enforcement cases while taking on additional inspection duties in the city’s building department, according to his deposition for the tenants’ lawsuit. He remains on staff in the code enforcement division.

Setterland, who oversaw the division at the time, acknowledged mistakes were made but indicated that Sparacio’s email did not mean that all violations were resolved.

“We’re really challenged staffing-wise and we don’t have the best record-keeping system in the world, and yes, we make mistakes,” Setterland said. “Could we do it better? Absolutely.”

Silver and Clifford said through their attorney that they did not learn about the full range of problems until a December 2014 city inspection, three months after they purchased the property. Wilson, their attorney, said they acted to fix the issues.

Ultimately, the pair had plans to double rents for all of the units. They advertised two-bedroom apartments for $1,995 on their company’s website shortly after their purchase.

Silver and Clifford “did not know what they were getting into,” said Wilson.

Silver is a founder and managing partner at a San Francisco-based real estate investment firm. Clifford is an Occidental real estate broker. Through their Santa Rosa-based company, Renaissance Housing Communities, they own at least three other apartment complexes in the city.

On their behalf, Wilson said he is planning to file a cross-complaint against the former owners of Bennett Valley Townhomes.

Phillips, the former owners’ attorney, disputed claims that his clients had sought to hide problems with the building from the buyers.

“To say that my clients concealed something … or (that the new owners) got suckered, is beyond belief,” said Phillips. “They are sophisticated buyers. They had their chance to do their due diligence and it was a clean offer.”

Sussman and three other tenants’ attorneys, Josh Katz, Jeff Hoffman and David Grabill, got involved after Silver and Clifford announced the rent increases. Immediately, they took note of a litany of problems.

“We got involved because they did not make the repairs,” Sussman said. “We’re seeing more and more of this — not making repairs and raising the rents to force people out. Add that to the tight rental market, and you just make an impossible situation worse.”

In light of the health and safety problems, Sussman and Katz advised their clients in December 2014 to withhold rent, a legal right in California if requested housing repairs are not made. Prompted by the tenants’ attorneys, Santa Rosa code enforcement officers again came to inspect the property.

Reynolds, the code enforcement supervisor, took over the investigation. After discovering the extent of the problems, and receiving results from a mold report ordered by the property owners, city officials red-tagged the building and deemed it uninhabitable.

In February, Sonoma County Judge Gary Nadler ordered Silver and Clifford to pay each family roughly $3,000, which included their security deposits and emergency rental assistance. Nadler wrote in court documents that he considered the new owners’ rent increases a form of tenant retaliation.

Sussman and the other tenant attorneys in the case, meanwhile, criticized Silver and Clifford for saying they were unaware of the condition of the building, calling them savvy businessmen with extensive real estate experience.

“All they had to do was inspect the apartments, or hire someone else to do it, to see the mold,” Sussman said.

After the tenants were forced to move out last year, Silver and Clifford had much of the structure torn down. It is still under construction.

Numerous tenants who lived in the apartment building have reported moderate to severe health issues they link to living conditions in the units, according to court documents and medical records reviewed by The Press Democrat.

It is difficult to connect tenants’ health problems directly to substandard housing conditions, but the former Hoen Avenue residents provide a case study. In their lawsuit, some tenants contend that indoor conditions in the homes contributed to problems ranging from breathing difficulties, to stress, anxiety and depression.

In his notes from one appointment, Aaron Valdovinos’ doctor made observations that supported the family’s claim.

“They were in a house with lots of mold, and that clearly was contributing to his disease,” Jimenez, the Vista Family Health Center physician, wrote in Valdovinos’ medical record last year during a regular checkup.

Between 2006 and last January, when the family moved out of the Hoen Avenue apartment, Valdovinos was treated at clinics or hospitals 34 times for serious asthma attacks.

In addition to Valdovinos, at least eight other residents said they experienced respiratory problems and allergic responses to conditions in their homes, according to the lawsuit. Six others reported some breathing difficulties while living there.

“We were very angry before,” Juana Paniagua said in an interview discussing her son Aaron’s health problems. “My son was coughing and wheezing all the time.”

The family now lives in an apartment in Santa Rosa’s Montgomery Village neighborhood.

“Aaron couldn’t have any exercise because of his health. Now there’s a pool here,” Paniagua said. “He can go out in the pool because he can breathe. Now he can move and exercise.”

Santa Rosa officials were scrambling to address the code enforcement lapse at the Hoen Avenue apartments last January when they red-tagged the property, forcing out the tenants.

The property’s problems, and blowback sparked by news coverage of the eviction, stoked turmoil at City Hall.

“Hoen Avenue blew everything up for us,” said Mark Maystrovich, a veteran Santa Rosa code enforcement officer.

Over the ensuing 11 months, City Manager Sean McGlynn, who was hired in August 2014, instituted a reorganization of the code enforcement division. Chuck Regalia, a City Hall veteran who managed the Community Development Department, which included code enforcement, was reassigned in July to oversee the Roseland annexation project and promoted to assistant city manager.

In November, McGlynn moved the code enforcement division to the city’s housing department, where it is overseen by different managers.

Regalia’s reassignment came in the aftermath of the Hoen Avenue case, as well as during an overhaul of the city’s planning and building department ordered after an outside review.

McGlynn, in an interview, denied that Regalia’s move was directly associated with the Hoen Avenue case, linking it instead to the need to focus on other initiatives, including the annexation of Roseland, development of affordable housing and addressing homelessness.

McGlynn said since he took over as Santa Rosa’s city manager, the city has been trying to get a “better understanding of where we need to make improvements.”

“I’m always concerned about anything that impacts the health and safety of the citizens of Santa Rosa,” McGlynn said.

He said he was not aware of specific problems in code enforcement.

Two sources inside City Hall who observed the shakeup, however, said that the reorganization stemmed partly from mistakes made on Hoen Avenue. Others said it also stemmed from more general leadership failures, including insufficient staffing and resources for code enforcement. The sources asked to have their names and job titles withheld in discussing the shakeup because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Regalia did not respond to interview requests.

In the fallout last year, Santa Rosa code enforcement officers were also given a new informal policy that restricted their authority to clear tenants from residential buildings with egregious health and safety hazards, according to Reynolds and Maystrovich, both longtime code enforcement officers.

Inspectors were not allowed to red-tag units if tenants did not have another place to live, the pair said.

“We’re being prevented from doing our jobs,” Maystrovich said in October. He described at that time a case where a woman was dealing with rodents in her rented home, catching five to six a day, but code enforcement couldn’t escalate the matter and red-tag the home because she had nowhere to go.

“If someone dies because of this — and that could happen — I’m going to start pointing fingers,” Maystrovich said. “I don’t want to be responsible for someone dying because I’m not allowed to do my job. This is about people’s health and safety.”

McGlynn would not say whether he was aware of such a policy or had a role in ordering it.

“I’m not responding beyond saying we’re assessing all of our policies,” McGlynn said.

City administrators newly responsible for code enforcement said the review involves all code enforcement activity.

The City Council is set to discuss the code enforcement division in April.

Critics, including tenants’ rights attorneys, argue the new policy actually makes untenable environments worse.

“When I found out, I said ‘What the hell is going on?’” said Sussman. “The higher-ups don’t want to put people out on the streets, so instead of making the landlord comply with the rules, people are just forced to live in unsafe conditions.”

This article was produced as a project for the California Health Journalism Fellowship, a program of the Center for Health Journalism at the USC Annenberg School of Journalism. You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or angela.hart@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ahartreports.