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Price-gouging charges filed over rent hike for Marin County home during Tubbs fire

Price-gouging charges filed over rent hike for Marin County home during Tubbs fire
A Coffey Park man combs through the remnants of his home after the Tubbs fire swept through his neighborhood in October 2017. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

A Marin County landlord and his agent are facing criminal charges for allegedly raising the rent on a home by more than $2,800 a month as a destructive wildfire gutted the region in October 2017.

Property owner Richard Scott Parke, 57, and Pamela Kelley, 55, a San Francisco-based Realtor and property manager, were each charged Thursday with four misdemeanor counts of price gouging for allegedly raising the rent on Parke’s three-bedroom property in Novato by 58% in a week, according to the California Department of Justice.

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The rent was raised, authorities allege, as the Tubbs fire raged in adjacent Napa and Sonoma counties. By the end of October 2017, the most destructive fire in modern state history had burned 36,807 acres, destroyed more than 5,000 structures and left 22 people dead, according to Cal Fire.

Parke’s 1,740 square-foot single-family home was offered for rent at $4,950 per month before the fire. On Oct. 10, the day after Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in the region, the asking rate initially rose to $6,800. Then, it was hiked again on the same day to $9,500 a month, according to the criminal complaint filed in Marin County Superior Court.

Brown’s state of emergency declaration triggered price-gouging restrictions in the counties affected by the fire, as well as nearby communities where the demand for housing and other goods and services could be affected. Under the law, landlords are prohibited from raising the price of housing more than 10% from the rates set before an emergency begins for a set period of time.

The maximum Parke’s property could have been legally rented for after the emergency declaration was $5,445, according to the California Department of Justice. The home eventually rented for $7,825 a month, according to the state’s complaint.

“Using emergency situations to squeeze money from consumers is a disgrace and will not be tolerated,” Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra said in a statement. “Anyone who would exploit the fires ripping across our state to make a buck off the backs of Californians will be met with the full force of the law.”

If convicted, Kelley and Parke each face a year in county jail and/or a fine up to $10,000. They could also face civil enforcement actions that include penalties up to $5,000 per violation and mandatory restitution.

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