Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office charges Cloverdale landlord with price gouging
Sonoma County prosecutors have accused a Cloverdale landlord of unlawfully seeking to profit from region’s tight rental housing market, alleging that over the past six months he raised monthly rent on a home a total of 40 percent - four times what’s allowed under a California law limiting such increases after a state-declared disaster.
Under price gouging charges filed last week by the District Attorney’s Office, Gerald Joseph Vlasak, 59, faces two misdemeanor counts associated with a pair of increases that prosecutors say hiked his tenant’s rent from $1,500 in January to $2,100 in June. Gov. Jerry Brown’s recent extension of wildfire recovery protections prohibits increases of more than 10 percent through Dec. 4.
The charges are part of an ongoing effort by a regional anti-gouging task force created by the District Attorney’s Office to curb illegal spikes in the price of essential goods and services while emergency safeguards are in place. Violators face up to a year in jail and maximum fines of $10,000, plus $5,000 in civil damages per charge. A message left on a phone number listed for Vlasak went unreturned Tuesday. He has yet to enter a plea and is set to appear for the first time in Sonoma County Superior Court on July 5.
The case stems from a complaint filed against Vlasak, according to Chief Deputy District Attorney Scott Jamar. He declined to elaborate on the source of the complaint or other details about the location and size of the rental home or the affected tenant.
“These complaints sort of trickle in and are followed by investigation and the subpoena of documents,” Jamar said. “Once we get enough information that we have enough evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, we send a citation letter.”
The case is at least the sixth of its kind across the North Bay since Brown declared a state of emergency on Oct. 9 amid the destructive wildfires. The state Attorney General’s Office interprets the gouging law to apply statewide. Four of the six North Bay cases originated in Sonoma County. Two are still being prosecuted while landlords in the other pair agreed to pay fines and fees and renegotiate 12-month leases with tenants.
In the other case in Marin County, a real estate agent, Melissa “Missy” Echeverria, stands accused of three gouging charges related to allegations that rent at a Novato home under her control rose from $5,000 to $9,000 - an increase of 80 percent - just days after the fires started. Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced his office’s involvement in that case in April.
Echeverria, 54, is slated to appear Friday in Marin County Superior Court to set a trial date. She again declined to comment Tuesday about the allegations.
To help bolster enforcement of California’s price-gouging statute, a North Bay legislator has proposed closing a loophole that allows those whose properties were not on the rental market before the fires to list them at exorbitant rates.
“Although current law prevents the cost of any good or service, including housing, from being raised more than 10 percent during a declared disaster, unscrupulous landlords and vacation rental hosts skirted these protections,” Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Santa Rosa, the amendment’s author, said in a statement. “This clarification allows local district attorneys to have a clear basis to pursue individuals or companies that do not comply.”
Meanwhile, reports of illegal rent increases continue to pour into prosecutors in the North Bay. The nonprofit Fair Housing Napa Valley brought five new suspected cases to the Napa County District Attorney’s Office last week. Deputy District Attorney Katy Yount said she was “cautiously optimistic” charges will be brought in four of those cases.
In Sonoma County, where nearly 5,300 homes were destroyed in October’s fires, additional complaints arrive each week. The District Attorney’s Office estimated receiving nearly 300 reports since it began tracking the issue. Of those, 20 to 30 remain under investigation.
“We’re using several different tools to make folks accountable for price gouging, with criminal and civil enforcement,” said Jamar. “We want to deter this type of behavior in the future and to make people accountable for engaging in that activity.”
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @kfixler.