California prosecutors file new price-gouging charges tied to October wildfires
Prosecutors have filed new charges against landlords in Sonoma and Marin counties accused of unlawfully raising rents more than 10 percent after the October wildfires, adding to the expanding list of property owners charged with price gouging during a state of emergency.
In Sonoma County, the District Attorney’s Office charged Stacy Ervin Holland, 55, of Orange County, earlier this month with one count of price gouging. The former Santa Rosa resident allegedly raised the monthly rent from $2,585 to $3,500 - a 35 percent increase - on a four-bedroom, three-bathroom Bennett Valley home two weeks after the fires started, according to the criminal complaint.
On Thursday, Attorney General Xavier Becerra also announced price-gouging charges against Marin County landlord Richard Scott Parke, 57, and his San Francisco-based property manager Pamela Kelley, 55, of leasing and real estate brokerage firm Home 2 San Francisco. The four-count complaint accuses Parke and Kelley of raising the rent at a Novato home by 58 percent in the days after the fire.
“Using emergency situations to squeeze money from consumers is a disgrace and will not be tolerated,” Becerra said in a statement. “Anyone who would exploit the fires ripping across our state to make a buck off the backs of Californians will be met with the full force of the law. During times of crisis, it is imperative that we support our neighbors and stop those who exploit others for personal gain.”
Kelley declined to comment Thursday. Messages left for Parke went unreturned.
The state complaint alleges the Novato rental home was offered for $4,950 a month ?before the Oct. 8 wildfires, which destroyed more than ?5,300 homes in Sonoma County and left thousands of people searching for new places to live.
On Oct. 10, the rental property was briefly relisted for $6,800 a month, then raised to $9,500 - nearly double the rent sought before the fires, according to the complaint. The following day, the listed rent was dropped to $7,800, the complaint said. On Oct. 15, the property was rented for $7,825 a month, more than 40 percent above the legal limit.
Under California law, a rent increase may not exceed 10 percent during a declared state of emergency and extensions of associated consumer safeguards. Gov. Jerry Brown’s state of emergency for Sonoma, Napa and Yuba counties was issued on Oct. 9, and its anti-gouging protections have since been extended twice and expanded to cover Lake, Mendocino and Solano counties. It is scheduled to expire Dec. 4.
Violations of the state law - a misdemeanor - are punishable by up to one year in jail and as much as $10,000 in fines. Each charge also comes with the possibility of up to $5,000 in civil damages.
Holland entered a plea of not guilty through an attorney on Thursday in Sonoma County Superior Court and is now scheduled for a settlement conference next month. Holland was not present for the hearing, and a message left Thursday on a phone number listed for her went unreturned.
“It’s been a difficult time for everybody,” Walter Rubenstein, Holland’s Santa Rosa-based attorney, said after the hearing. “Just the impact of the fires on the housing market; it’s not just for renters, but homeowners, too.”
The criminal case against Holland is the sixth of its kind related to the October wildfires brought by the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office, which founded and maintains the region’s ?anti-gouging task force. Chief Deputy District Attorney Scott Jamar, who oversees the task force, said the office will file another price-gouging case within the next week, and has ?one other investigation still open.
“We’re sort of on the front lines on this, and because of the additional fires and other disasters like mudslides, we’re getting calls from other counties about it,” said Jamar. “As natural disasters become more common, I think there will be more case law driven by these events where these statutes are being used.”
Three of those Sonoma County cases, most recently including one against a Cloverdale landlord, have been resolved through a diversion program that allowed the accused to accept community service hours, tenant reimbursement and renegotiated leases of 10 percent above the prior rate. The Holland case and the two others are awaiting trial.
Thursday’s announcement marks the second time the state Attorney General’s Office has filed a case of price gouging tied to the October wildfires - both in Marin County. In April, a landlord faced three counts for a suspected 80 percent monthly rental hike, but also accepted a diversion program that included covering investigation costs, among additional conditions.
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @kfixler.