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Petaluma tenants sue landlord company over rent increases

Three Sonoma County tenants of a 492-unit east Petaluma apartment complex are accusing their landlord of illegally raising their rent in a suit meant to cover thousands of other California renters.

The plaintiffs, all current or former residents of the Vineyard Luxury Apartments in Petaluma, claim apartment complex owner JRK Residential Group raised their rents higher than state law allows, citing a price gouging prohibition put in place after the 2017 wildfires and in effect through at least the end of this year.

The suit is seeking class-action status, which would allow it to cover any number of tenants in Northern and Southern California who experienced illegal rent hikes while leasing from JRK. The price gouging prohibition — put into place by then-Gov. Jerry Brown in 2017 and extended by Gov. Gavin Newsom — limits the cumulative increase of rent and certain goods and services to 10% above pre-emergency costs and also covers Mendocino, Napa, Butte, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.

One of the plaintiffs, Herman Grishaver, began renting an apartment at The Vineyard after his townhouse at the Oaks in Fountaingrove complex burned in the Tubbs fire. Grishaver, a retired doctor, had moved to Santa Rosa from a small town in northern Pennsylvania in the summer of 2016.

Grishaver said his initial rent at the complex was about $2,666 and that his lease was extended multiple times while his Fountaingrove home was rebuilt. But in 2019, when he signed a new lease to stay at The Vineyard through May 2020, his rent increased to $3,054 — an increase of $388, or 14.6%.

The new rent seemed excessive to Grishaver, so he did some research. In addition to the 2017 price gouging prohibition, a new statewide tenant protection law capping rent increases at 10% annually took effect in January 2020 but included retroactive curbs on hikes dating back to March 2019.

Grishaver, who has since moved back into his Fountaingrove home, alleges the increase ordered by his former landlord last year conflicted with both sets of tenant safeguards. His attorney, Santa Rosa lawyer Josh Katz, provided The Press Democrat with rental documents that reflect the increase, which Grishaver called “kind of outrageous.”

“If they’re responsible landlords, they have to know the law, and the law is clear,” Grishaver said.

Calls for comment and emails Wednesday and Thursday to representatives of The Vineyard apartment complex and its corporate headquarters in Los Angeles were not returned as of Saturday evening.

Another plaintiff in the lawsuit, Sharon Felker, started leasing an apartment in August 2016. Felker now works part time in a Sonoma clothing store and shares a two-bedroom unit with her daughter and three grandchildren

At the time of the emergency declaration for the 2017 wildfires, she was paying $2,008 for her apartment, according to the lawsuit. As of August 2019, rent was raised to $2,172, according to a copy of her lease provided by Katz.

As of September 2020, according to the lawsuit, JRK raised her rent to $2,353 — an increase of 8% from her previous lease, but of about 17% since the 2017 fires.

“It’s put a crunch on us,” Felker said. “We have to get groceries and everything else. Between everything else we pay, it’s put a tight budget on us — tighter than before."

A third plaintiff, Edgar Cruz Soriano, alleges that the landlord raised his rent from $2,000 to $2,229 — a roughly 11% hike, just over the 10% cap put in place by the 2017 emergency declaration. And when he gave notice to move out in the summer of 2019, JRK allegedly required him to provide 60 days notice before breaking his lease while billing him at a rate of $2,927 per month — nearly 150% of his original rent — for the final portion of his lease, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit cites both the 2019 Tenant Protection Act passed by the Legislature and the gubernatorial emergency declaration for the 2017 fires to challenge the rent increases. The suit also disputes late charges and fines assessed for failing to secure renter’s liability insurance, and seeks unspecified restitution and other legal relief including attorneys fees.

The legal challenge is not the first this year lodged against JRK, which operates at least 10 other apartments in California that can house about 2,000 people, as well as other properties outside the state, according to the lawsuit.

In April, the Washington state Attorney General’s Office sued JRK for violating a gubernatorial protection against evictions. JRK went on to reach a $345,000 deal to settle that case.

The documents provided by Katz also show tenants signed a form meant to preclude them from participating in class-action lawsuits. Katz said he and his legal partner, Redwood City attorney Todd Espinosa, believed those documents are not enforceable, citing two court cases from 2016 and 2005 that support the importance of class actions and protect the use of those types of suits.

“This type of breach where you’ve got a large number of people with relatively small individual lawsuits are why class actions are allowed,” Katz said.

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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