When I call, Sheri Carr first says that Code Compliance is not required to inspect hotels that were built prior to the enactment of San Diego's Uniform Building Code in the 1920s. She estimates that the Reiss was built sometime around 1912. Nevertheless, Carr tells me, she went to the hotel in mid-February. "The owner showed me wall heaters in the rooms," she says.
"Maybe Caparell put on a dog and pony show for her," says Al DeBartolo. Recently, to get to the bottom of it, I went to the hotel and asked to see a vacant room I might rent. The room had a microwave oven and a mini-refrigerator. But no heater or heating vent.
On April 9, with the help of Francis and DeBartolo, current Reiss Hotel resident Rita Curry filed a class-action lawsuit against John Caparell and his mother, Voula Caparell, two known partners in a company called San Diego Progressive Urban Development. Ossie Coley and Peter Nadreau, former residents of the Reiss, are joining Curry in the action. This time DeBartolo and Francis want to make it impossible for the court to throw out the suit because it names an insufficient number of plaintiffs. The suit alleges that company owners illegally and "intentionally withheld...heat from all guests and tenants of the Reiss Hotel for a period of at least four years...." In addition, it charges that they "routinely refuse and threaten to refuse rent payments from tenants, who are otherwise current on their rent, for the primary purpose of depriving these tenants of the full rights of tenancy, specifically the tenants' rights to challenge the evictions in court." The plaintiffs are asking the court to award them attorney fees and damages for all people who have lived at the Reiss over the past four years.
By phone John Caparell tells me that Francis "has done this kind of thing before. It's basically extortion," he says, by which he means "the use of unmerited threats to obtain money." I ask Caparell, who is an attorney, whether his hotel has heat. "I don't comment on matters that are currently being litigated," he says.
The day after Francis served Caparell notice of the lawsuit, Rita Curry tells me, she had her rent payment rejected. She was being evicted. "The manager told me, 'John [Caparell] is not happy with you,' " says Curry. "But it was cold here this winter. I asked for another blanket, but they said they couldn't give me one." When Curry told Reiss manager Art Mendoza that she had a legal right to stay, he called the police. He convinced them that hotels are permitted to refuse future business with their guests. The police then gave Curry an hour to pack her things and leave.
But Curry called Francis, who called police headquarters. "I told the officer in charge that Mendoza had hoodwinked her officers," he says. "Once tenants have rented rooms for 31 days or more, they have the same rights as any regular renter. They have the right to challenge their eviction in court. And I told the officer I didn't want to see the City charged in the lawsuit too." Within the hour, he claims, the police came back and told Curry she had the right to stay.
I speak with the two other plaintiffs as well. Peter Nadreau lived at the Reiss during December and January, when he had a job. He tells me that he is among a group of elderly and occasionally homeless people who, depending on their income, go in and out of residential hotels. "If people start getting something like [federally funded Supplemental Security Income], they can stay indefinitely," he says. Not long ago Nadreau quit his job and now sleeps in a friend's storage facility.
Ossie Coley came to San Diego from Northern California last summer. Before that he lived in Washington, D.C., where he participated in another lawsuit over lack of hotel heat. "The Georgetown University Law Center helped us with that one," he says. "The hotel got hit with 30 different violations." Coley now has a new job and has rented an apartment.
"Wasn't it," I ask, "a lot colder in Washington?"
"Oh, yes," says Coley. "But it was tremendously cold in the Reiss this past winter."