Andrea Wedell has lived in downtown Petaluma for 14 months, paying $2,150 for two bedrooms in the bottom floor of an old Victorian house. Last week, as thousands of people who have lost homes in the Sonoma County fires flooded the market looking for available housing, Wedell’s landlord raised her rent by $200.
In the immediate aftermath of the fires, Gov. Jerry Brown issued an emergency order, which also included a ban on price gouging, or raising the cost of goods by more than 10 percent. In Wedell’s case, her rent was increased by 9.3 percent, just under the threshold to be prosecuted as price gouging, but what she says violates the spirit of the order.
“I have no doubt that this is a direct response to the fires,” said Wedell, an artist and career coach. “It feels abusive. It’s going to force me to move.”
Wedell’s landlord, Guin Van Dyke, did not return messages seeking comment. Wedell said that she won’t be able to fight the rent increase legally since it falls just short of the legal definition of price gouging.
During times of crisis, dramatically raising the price of gas, bottled water, canned food or other scarce supplies can be a real problem, officials say. During the wildfires that ravaged Sonoma County in October, one of the most devastated resources was the housing supply.
The fires destroyed more than 6,000 structures, mostly houses, and wiped out 5 percent of Santa Rosa’s housing stock. The new homeless residents add to a housing crisis that was already plaguing the region, and policy makers are debating solutions to expedite the rebuilding process.
In the meantime, fair housing advocates advise home seekers to be vigilant of price gouging. Fair Housing Sonoma County, a program of the Petaluma People Services Center, trains landlords in complying with housing law, including price gouging.
“In Petaluma, we do so much landlord training, our landlords know they can’t get away with it,” said Elece Hempel, the executive director. “We’re not seeing much of it in Petaluma. We are seeing high rents, but that’s because they were already high to begin with.”
Hempel said her office has received a few calls about price gouging in the Petaluma housing market, and refers cases to the District Attorney’s office to investigate.
District Attorney Jill Ravitch said that her office has investigated about 50 complaints about price gouging countywide, including at least one in Petaluma.
“We investigate everything that comes our way,” she said. “We take price gouging very seriously. People are already dealing with incredible misfortune as a result of the firestorms, and then to think people would try and take advantage of them.”
Gov. Brown has extended his emergency declaration through April, so anti-price gouging provisions are in effect for six months. Violators of the price gouging statute are subject to criminal prosecution that can result in one year in jail or a fine of up to $10,000.
To make a complaint to the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office, call 565-5317.
Fair Housing Sonoma County offers free advice and services to tenants and landlords in Petaluma. They can be reached at 765-8488.
(Contact Matt Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.)