Sonoma County warns: price gouging after North Bay fires means jail time

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ByJonathan Bloom KGO logo
Wednesday, October 25, 2017
Sonoma County officials are warning retailers and landlords that price gouging in the wake of the devastating North Bay wildfires could mean jail time.

SANTA ROSA, Calif. (KGO) -- In the devastated neighborhood of Coffey Park, where entire streets of homes are reduced to ash, volunteers in protective clothing are shoveling mounds of burnt debris into a giant wire strainer.

"We come out and we help homeowners to look through and find valuables that they think may have survived the flames," said one volunteer from Project Rubicon, through a thick face mask.

On this day, they sorted through the rubble of David Edney's home. He's a Sonoma County Sheriff's deputy whose family lost everything.

"When we left during evacuation, it was so sudden that my wife left her wedding ring here," he said.

Edney did find two old police badges, blackened with soot, and a Donald Duck fork given to him when he was a baby.

Though the help from Project Rubicon is free, rebuilding homes -- and finding a place to stay in the meantime -- will not be. At a public meeting, Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch told the Board of Supervisors that her office has already received 25 complaints of price gouging, including at least three that could wind up in court.

"After the declaration (of emergency), if you decided it was a get-rich-quick opportunity and jacked your price up, we're gonna come after you. It's that easy," she said.

Ravitch is referring to section 396 of the California Penal Code, which makes price gouging after an emergency is declared punishable by up to a year in jail. The law prohibits raising prices by more than 10 percent over what was advertised before the disaster -- and it applies equally to building contractors and landlords.

Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbit said protections against skyrocketing rent are especially important as survivors of the fires begin to leave the temporary accommodations offered by their friends and family and seek longer-term housing.

"We know some people are gonna fall through," Rabbit said. "We have to strengthen the bottom of the safety net and look out for everyone."

The Board is pondering a county ordinance that would go a step further than the state law -- possibly including Supervisor Shirlee Zane's suggestion of "public shaming" by publishing offenders' pictures in local newspapers.

But Ravitch told the board the ordinance could backfire -- adding a layer of bureaucracy that could slow down prosecution of corrupt business owners and landlords. She asked them to let the judicial system handle the bad guys.

"If they violate the law and we can prove it, we will bring them into the courthouse and we will hold them accountable," Ravitch said.

Sonoma County and the City of Santa Rosa are both considering other ordinances to protect fire victims from skyrocketing housing prices, including a temporary moratorium on new vacation rental permits, which are required to rent homes out on websites like Airbnb.