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