Sonoma County prosecutors charge six landlords with price gouging
Sonoma County prosecutors have charged six landlords with price gouging in recent weeks for jacking up rental rates as lethal wildfires still burned throughout the county.
Court records show that four of the six landlords increased rental prices by more than 30 percent just days after fires erupted on the night of Oct. 8. It is a misdemeanor to increase prices for lodging, food, medical products and building supplies by more than 10 percent in California after an emergency is declared.
“These offenses are a high priority,” said Chief Deputy District Attorney Scott Jamar, who heads the anti-price gouging task force created by District Attorney Jill Ravitch. “Price gouging has ripple effects throughout the entire housing market.”
The District Attorney’s Office has received roughly 120 complaints of price gouging since Oct. 9 and found in 80 cases there was either not enough evidence to prosecute or that there was no wrongdoing, Jamar said.
With 40 more cases under investigation, Jamar expects there will be more charges filed. Under California law, price gouging protections only apply for ?30 days following a declaration of emergency, but Gov. Jerry Brown issued an executive order to maintain price protections in fire-ravaged counties until April 18.
Craigslist and other online listing services have been subpoenaed for user information over the past two months as Sonoma County prosecutors build cases against suspected price gougers, Ravitch said.
The first charge, filed on Nov. 21, alleges Marjie Moulana, 53, and Fourouzan Moulana, 60, increased the price of their property on the 900 block of Eileen Court in Rohnert Park by 32 percent from $2,650 a month to $3,500 a month.
The Moulanas’ Rohnert Park rental property is a 1,240-square-foot house with three bedrooms and two baths, according to real estate website Zillow.
Santa Rosa attorney Jane Gaskell, who represents the Moulanas, did not go into specifics but said in an email “this case stems not from any ill intent on the part of my clients, but from the bidding war instigated by the insurance companies.”
The Moulanas are set to appear in Sonoma County Superior Court Tuesday.
Sonoma County prosecutors also charged Dennis George Alvarado, 62, and Arabella Alvarado, 61, with price gouging on Nov. 22. The Alvarados allegedly increased the monthly price of their Santa Rosa rental property by 33 percent from $2,400 to $3,200 in the week following the fire.
By Oct. 22, the Alvarados found a renter who signed a 12-month lease on the property, according to court documents.
The two did not appear at their first scheduled court date on Nov. 29 and their case has been continued to Tuesday. The Alvarados could not be reached for comment.
Most recently prosecutors charged Marianne Laruffa, 61, and Robert Gardner Howard, 68, with price gouging Wednesday. The couple is due in court on Jan. 4. Court documents for their case weren’t available Thursday, but Jamar said their alleged actions were one of the more egregious examples of price gouging.
Laruffa and Howard are alleged to have invited interested renters to their Santa Rosa property and “asked people to bid against each other” with a starting price set at $3,400, Jamar said. Laruffa and Howard could not be reached for comment.
As a misdemeanor offense, the maximum penalty for price gouging is up to a year in jail and up to a $10,000 fine.
Ravitch said it can be difficult prosecuting price gouging. There are many examples of landlords and contractors charging “exorbitant rates” where it can’t be proven they have raised prices by more than 10 percent since the fires began, she said.
You can reach Staff Writer Nick Rahaim at 707-521-5203 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @nrahaim.