Homeowners in a downtown Santa Ana low-income condominium complex have sued the project's developers, alleging that shoddy construction has led to water damage and health problems for several residents.
Residents of the Spectrum Condominiums have complained for years about collapsing roofs, faulty plumbing, flooding and electrical hazards.
In many of the small units, where up to eight people live, leaks have caused sections of walls and ceilings to become covered by a black mold that several residents blame for recurring rashes and other maladies.
The lawsuit asks for construction damages and relocation costs. Those living in the 200-home complex plan to file a second lawsuit against the project's developers dealing with health problems allegedly caused by mold, said Alexander Robertson, an attorney representing the homeowners association.
Goldrich & Kest Industries, a Culver City construction firm responsible for selling most of the homes, sent investigators to inspect the property in April, Robertson said.
"They all shook their heads and said, 'It shouldn't be like this,' then [left]," he said. "That's the last anyone heard of them."
Goldrich & Kest built only about 10% of the complex, said Richard Levin, the developer's attorney, who blamed most of the building's problems on the original builders, who are also named as defendants in the homeowners' suit.
He confirmed that Goldrich & Kest investigated residents' complaints.
"There's no doubt there's problems with the construction of that building," Levin said. "Nobody's going to deny the obvious. [Goldrich & Kest] just had the misfortune of getting into it at the very end and dealing with the legal consequences of selling the darn things."
However, he acknowledged that Goldrich & Kest "might have a legal responsibility" to pay for repairs.
"That's for the courts to decide," Levin said. "Goldrich & Kest is a substantial company, and we'll pay money [to the plaintiffs], I am sure. But first they have to get as much money as they can from the [original builders]."
Santa Ana City Manager David N. Ream agreed that the condominiums were "virtually completed" by the original developer, Bristol House Partnership, which filed for bankruptcy in 1991.
The city bought the property with redevelopment funds in the mid-1980s and sold it to the developer at a reduced cost, Ream said. Officials of Bristol House Partnership could not be reached for comment.
Last week, during a press conference, government officials, attorneys and reporters wearing mold-proof respirators crowded into the apartment of Cristina Vazquez, 30, where water from leaks has caused mold to bloom in the bathroom and a large hole to form in the kitchen ceiling.
Vazquez and her 2-year-old son didn't wear respirators. She laughed when asked if she thought the bulky rubber masks were necessary, and said no one in her eight-person household had been sick since they moved in three months ago.
But several neighbors who have lived in the complex for a longer time have reported recurring sicknesses, she said.
In 13-year-old Edson Ocampo's apartment, mold grows up the side of the bathroom and closet walls where water has leaked from defective pipes.
Ocampo said most of the seven family members living in his apartment, including a 2-year-old brother and a newborn, have suffered unexplained rashes, nosebleeds or coughs--symptoms that the homeowners' attorneys say can be traced to the mold.
Ocampo, whose mother works in a T-shirt printing company, said he and his little brother were treated in an emergency room for unexplained rashes.
Ocampo said his family has replaced the carpet in the home three times because of water damage.
"The furniture in my uncle's bedroom is new, and it's already rotting," he said.
Ismael Becerril, 43, who helps manage the complex, said he has heard a few similar complaints about rashes and colds over the five years he has been there.
But he said more people have complained about construction defects, such as the 60-foot crack in the concrete floor of the parking garage, the large crack in the swimming pool and outdoor balconies that slope inward so rain flows directly into residents' homes.
Residents no longer use the complex's gym because so much mold has grown on the walls, Becerril added.
James Patanella, a 40-year-old grocery store manager, said construction problems have plagued the complex since he moved in about five years ago.
"People saw problems around here, and we thought it was just minor building defects," he said. "But we found out [the problem] was large."
Among the officials touring the dilapidated structure last week was state Sen. Joe Dunn (D-Santa Ana), who found living conditions similar to those at Haster Gardens, a 148-unit apartment complex in Garden Grove, that gained a reputation as one of the worst slums in Orange County.
"In Santa Ana, we have an almost identical situation with the same development of mold in the leaking roofs and pipes," Dunn said.
But the Spectrum situation is different, he said, because the residents are homeowners, not tenants.
"I don't think anyone disagrees that the complex needs to be rehabilitated," Dunn said. "The question is, just who will be responsible for relocation?"
Times staff writer David Reyes contributed to this report.