SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) – A San Francisco landlord accused of renting out an illegal living space described as a “dungeon” used a church to prey on his victims, according to court documents.

Earlier this week, KPIX 5 reported on the city’s lawsuit against the owner of 5 Persia, Melissa Mendoza, and master tenant Ernesto Paredes.

The City Attorney called the illegal living space a “dungeon” like firetrap.

About 30 people lived underground in small single room units – sharing two kitchens and two bathrooms.

“I was always worried about a fire. I knew if something happened, myself and my family wouldn’t make it out alive,” former tenant Claudia Soto told KPIX 5.

“It was so dark. I couldn’t tell if it was daytime or nighttime. There were no windows and only one door to get outside. From my unit, it looked like a tunnel,” Soto recalled.

Despite the living conditions, Osmar Blandon lived in the unit for almost 10 years.

“We couldn’t afford to move. Everything else in the city was so expensive. When we found this, we thought it was a blessing,” Blandon said.

The illegal units were in the 200-foot long basement below a busy laundromat, a space rented to Paredes. Above the laundromat was a church, rented out to none other than Paredes.

“When I first moved here, I started going to church above the laundromat. At church they said they would help people find places to live if they didn’t have a place to stay,” Blandon recalled.

Blandon said single tenant living in the basement was there because of hearing about the illegal units from people who worked at the church. They all went through Paredes, who was one of the church elders.

Paredes was also the man who came every month to collect the rent from all the tenants, including the $1,000 a month in cash Blandon paid for the tiny room.

But then Paredes came asking for more. He wanted the tenants to help him raise money to buy the building.

“We did bake sales and car washes and tried to get donations. We turned over all the money to the church,” Blandon said.

After a falling out between church leaders, the pastor left, the half a million dollars disappeared, and the tenants were stuck living in hell.

“I couldn’t go back to church after that. I’d given so much of my life to try to help and we were left with nothing,” Blandon said.

The family’s bad luck got worse. Soto was diagnosed shortly after with sinus cancer that she said was caused by the living conditions.

The city’s lawsuit cites health issues like mold, mildew, and rodent infestations. Officials said there were also safety hazards like leaking pipes from the laundromat upstairs, dangerous wiring and extension cords crisscrossing the ceiling, and no hot water or heat.

Former tenants have also banded together and filed their own lawsuit against Paredes and the building’s owner.

“Tenants were using the electric stoves as their source of heat because there was no other means of warming up the area,” said attorney Idin Kashefipour, who is representing the tenants. “He knew that wasn’t a place people should be living and he could have made other choices, as could the owners of the building.”

The tenants hope to recover enough to rebuild their lives. For Blandon and Soto, it means paying off $80,000 in medical bills and maybe being able to afford a house of their own.

KPIX 5 reached out to Paredes’ attorney, who had no comment.