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How to report suspected price gouging in Sonoma County

Email the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office through its website, da.sonoma-county.org, or call 707-565-2311.


Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

State and county prosecutors are investigating a growing list of price-gouging complaints by renters in the North Bay after the governor recently extended wildfire recovery protections that outlaw price hikes of more than 10 percent.

Charges have been filed against landlords in at least five cases across the North Bay, and several dozen other investigations are underway. Tips pour in weekly of improper increases on goods and services, though most complaints involve rents.

“These are constantly coming in and are at varying degrees of investigation,” said Scott Jamar, chief deputy district attorney in Sonoma County. “We have not filed any new cases yet, but I anticipate that we will be filing some in the future.”

Sonoma County is the epicenter for these claims because of its position at the heart of October’s firestorm that wiped out more than 5,100 homes. Concerned that the diminished supply could result in drastic surges in rent, the District Attorney’s Office created a regional anti-gouging task force overseen by Jamar.

More than 250 price-gouging complaints have been lodged with authorities in Sonoma County since October, the most of any county in the state. Prosecutors in Lake, Napa, Marin and Solano counties — which are members of the task force with the state Attorney General’s Office — also have received complaints, though not at the same pace seen in Sonoma County.

Those found guilty of the misdemeanor face a maximum of $10,000 in fines and one year in jail, in addition to $5,000 in civil damages per violation.

In the highest-profile case to date, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra worked with the District Attorney’s Office in Marin County to file charges against a real estate agent last month. The woman allegedly raised the rent on a Novato home by 80 percent just days after the fires began.

The Legal Aid nonprofits in Sonoma and Marin counties have fielded a handful of complaints of possible gouging as well. In one case, residents of the adjacent Montevista and Oak View apartment complexes in San Rafael reported their landlord increased rents by as much as 21 percent on May 1.

Andrea Cashman, 48, a five-year resident of Montevista, said the planned hike of nearly 19 percent — or $335 per month — on her one-bedroom unit would likely force her to move. Her monthly salary as an administrative assistant with San Rafael City Schools is already stretched almost as far as it can go, she said, and could mean either taking on a roommate or a longer commute to work if she has to look at lower-cost options in southern Sonoma County.

“I’m basically living at the poverty level,” said Cashman. “You have to eliminate everything and just pay rent, food and bills. It’s pretty sad.”

Len Rifkind, a real estate attorney and former mayor of Larkspur who is also the principal owner of the two San Rafael complexes, declined to comment Tuesday on the gouging accusations.

The rent hikes were scaled back Wednesday by the management company for the 70 apartments in Rifkind’s complexes. Residents were notified their rents had instead been increased 10 percent, the maximum allowed under the state’s price-gouging law.

Some of the unlawful price hikes reported by tenants in the North Bay reflects landlords’ ignorance of the current rules, said Colleen Chatoff, president of the North Bay Association of Realtors.

“I’m sure that’s a part of it,” said Chatoff, a longtime real estate agent in Napa and Lake counties. “With these prosecutions they’re getting the message. Quite frankly, I don’t find that landlords gouge anyway, because it’s not in their best interest. Sure, there’s a couple of bad apples, but people understand this (extension) is a necessity and we need to have some human kindness about it.

“When people are down, don’t kick them, right?” Chatoff added.

Still, the case law surrounding California’s gouging statute remains in its infancy, according to Jamar, and obtaining proof beyond a reasonable doubt can be difficult.

The deluge of calls into the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office also reflects some citizens’ misunderstanding of the nuances of the law, he said. Complicating matters further is the existence of exemptions for landlords, who can justify higher rents if they are offset by large investments to improve a property.

Last month, Gov. Jerry Brown extended the state’s gouging protections into December. The April 13 executive order singles out Sonoma, Lake, Mendocino, Napa and Solano counties — leaving room to debate whether it covered other parts of the state, including Marin County.

“This is fairly new ground,” said Jamar. “Specific to those specific counties, one could argue that’s limiting. But the price-gouging statute, clearly the language implies it’s enforced in other counties, but that it’s got to be related to the event that started in Sonoma and the fire counties.”

The Attorney General’s Office, which has primary jurisdiction in any county when it chooses, said the extension of the gouging law applies statewide. A press secretary for Brown deferred to the attorney general.

Low-income housing advocates agree with the attorney general’s interpretation, arguing that droves of fire victims have turned to rentals across the region and need protections against exorbitant rent increases.

“That fits well into the reality of what we see here,” said David Levin, managing attorney with Legal Aid of Marin County. “We know that the situation in Marin is just terrible because of the housing crisis and the shortage that’s been exacerbated by the North Bay fires. A lot of these rent increases, there’s no economic justifications — it’s not like (landlords’) costs went up 25 percent.”

The number of people impacted by the October fires who have relocated to Marin County is not known. Worries persist, however, that vital Sonoma County workers will abandon the region forever if they can’t afford housing in bordering communities.

“There’s a link between housing and labor, and the problems are intertwined,” said Ronit Rubinoff, executive director of Legal Aid of Sonoma County. “Rents are skyrocketing. People are already stretching and doing the commute, but if they can’t afford it, they’ll leave altogether and we’ll see an even bigger dip in the labor force.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or at kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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