Judge Rules Against City in Musical Rooms Case

by Casey Mills on October 13, 2005

In a controversial decision that could increase homelessness in San Francisco, the Superior Court recently ruled that the City cannot stop hotel owners from requiring tenants to check in and out every 28 days. In Mosser vs. City of San Francisco, the City Attorney’s office sought to prevent landlord Neveo Mosser from practicing ‘musical rooms.’ The practice forces tenants out of their units before they’ve lived in them 28 days – the amount of time legally required to establish tenant’s rights – and places them into another room. Although ‘musical rooms’ denies permanent housing to low-income people, and renders them subject to being locked out at any time, under the court’s ruling this practice could increase.

The City of San Francisco filed their suit against Neveo Mosser, a former Willie Brown appointee to the Rent Board, in 2002. The City Attorney’s office sued Mosser, who owns three downtown SRO hotels, for both tax evasion and practicing musical rooms. However, Superior Court Judge Quidachay – one of the court’s most conservative members – recently issued a summary judgment against the city, throwing the case out of court.

Musical rooms remains one of the most harmful practices low-income tenants endure, as well as one of the most widespread. By continuously moving tenants around from room to room, landlords can avoid ever being held liable for mistreating tenants, be it by raising their rents illegally, refusing to make repairs to their units, or evicting them without cause.

Tenderloin resident Frank Cole said before he moved into his current home, he dealt with several hotels that practices musical rooms. Cole called the experience awful, saying it extended his period of homelessness for quite some time.

“There were a few hotels in town that would only accept money for 21 days at a time, then they’d kick you out,” said Cole. “I was still homeless, and I had to carry a 30-pound bag with my stuff in it all over town, even to my job, and you can imagine how embarrassing that was. It kept me perpetually homeless, even when I had money.”

State law prevents musical rooms to stop such situations as the one faced by Cole. However, because the judge issued a summary judgment against the city, the ruling could negate the state law. Judges issue summary judgments when facts are not being disputed, so the case can be decided simply by whether the judge finds the actions committed by the defendant to be illegal.

In Mosser vs. SF, it appears likely that Mosser admitted he practiced musical rooms, and Judge Quidachay ruled that the practice wasn’t illegal. If so, the ruling could have potentially devastating effects for many of San Francisco’s low-income tenants, particularly those living in SROs.

“We think the court made an absurdly narrow interpretation of state law,” said Matt Dorsey, from the City Attorney’s office. “The ruling eviscerates the legal intent in seeking to protect SRO hotel residents from having to live in a permanent state of transience.”

Tenant advocates agree, pointing out that the ruling could ultimately lead to more homelessness in San Francisco just when community groups and leaders are working their hardest to end it.

“The rich and powerful win again,” said Sam Dodge, director of the Central City SRO Collaborative. “Crushing the hopes of those forced into permanent homelessness by landlord greed.”

City Attorney Dennis Herrera, an outspoken proponent of ending the practice of musical rooms, has plans to appeal the ruling to the California Court of Appeal. Dorsey said believes the city has a good chance at getting the ruling overturned.

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