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Novato landlord charged with price gouging as prosecutors scour for cases after fires

How to report suspected price gouging in Sonoma County

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

State and county prosecutors continue to be on the lookout for landlords who raise rents more than 10 percent in violation of laws designed to protect tenants from price gouging after the October wildfires.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced three misdemeanor charges Monday against a real estate agent who allegedly hiked the monthly rate on her Novato home more than permitted under the law during a state of emergency. Violations carry up to one year in jail and as much as $10,000 in fines, in addition to the possibility of civil penalties.

Melissa “Missy” Echeverria, 54, is charged with raising the rent on her home from $5,000 to $9,000 — an increase of 80 percent — in the days following the start of the North Bay fires, according to the court filing. Reached Wednesday by phone, Echeverria declined to comment.

The charges are the result of a monthslong investigation by a task force created by Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch to combat unlawful rent increases after the fires. It is believed to be the first time the Attorney General’s Office has prosecuted a price-gouging case under the statute.

“In times of crisis, the overwhelming majority of Californians do what is right,” Becerra said in a statement. “Unfortunately that’s not always the case. There are some unscrupulous individuals who engage in price gouging, taking advantage of those who are already suffering.

“It’s wrong, it’s unconscionable and it’s illegal,” he added.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed an executive order this past Friday extending the ban on price gouging through Dec. 4. The prohibition had been scheduled to expire Wednesday, and local officials applauded the extension.

“Our community continues to recover and rebuild, and it’s vital we work together as local, state and federal partners to protect our community from opportunists,” Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, said in a statement. “This is a critical piece of our efforts.”

In the wake of the fires, the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office has fielded 224 complaints of illegal price hikes, according to Chief Deputy District Attorney Scott Jamar, who heads up the special investigation unit. The office has prosecuted eight landlords in four cases — two based in Santa Rosa and two in Rohnert Park.

Two of those cases have already been resolved, Jamar said, with the landlords agreeing to pay fines and fees, renegotiate 12-month leases that conform to the statute and avoid harassing or evicting their tenants. If the landlords abide by the agreement, the charges will be dismissed.

In the two outstanding cases, an attorney representing the four defendants has filed a motion to throw out the charges. The motion challenges both the complaint and the constitutionality of the statute.

Prosecutors say price-gouging cases are difficult to prove in court because of nuances in the law. As a misdemeanor offense, the maximum penalty for price gouging is up to a year in jail and up to a $10,000 fine.

Tenant advocates suspect many more cases of gouging exist than have been reported. None they’ve seen so far include the necessary documentation or clear-cut allegations facing Echeverria, the Novato landlord.

“That’s such an outrageous, outrageous hike,” said Ronit Rubinoff, executive director of Legal Aid of Sonoma County, which helps at-risk populations with housing issues. “We’ve heard about others before, but in many instances people don’t come forward, partly because there are no protections from evictions.”

How to report suspected price gouging in Sonoma County

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

Other cases don’t fall under the protection of the ban against gouging, she noted. A property rented for the first time and at an exorbitant monthly rate after the fires, for example, would not violate the law because it was rented before the declaration of emergency.

Housing officials view Brown’s executive order as a temporary way to prevent additional cases of price gouging from cropping up amid the shortage of rental homes.

“We’re certainly extremely grateful that the governor extended protections, because clearly the market is no less at risk than right after the fires,” said Rubinoff. “Tenants run at least as much risk now as after the fires and remain susceptible to rental hikes.”

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