Ongoing Wildfire Emergencies Trigger State’s Anti-Price Gouging Law – Prohibits Landlords from Raising Current or Advertised Rents by More than 10%
(From Press Release – Berkeley Tenants Union) – California is currently under statewide rent control thanks to Governor Gavin Newsom’s recent declaration of a statewide emergency because of the wildfires and evacuations. That declaration, made on October 27, 2019, triggered the protections under the state’s existing anti-price gouging law. The law prohibits businesses from raising prices of various goods and services – including rental housing – by more than 10%, with limited exceptions. This 10% limit on price increases is a total cap following a state of emergency, NOT an annual cap.
“This anti-price gouging law provides desperately needed protections for tenants in Berkeley and throughout California,” said Berkeley Tenants Union Chair Julia Cato. “This law makes it a crime for any person, business, or other entity to increase rent on housing advertised or charged to an existing or prospective tenant more than 10%.”
The relief for prospective tenants is commonly known as “vacancy control”. Landlords cannot charge a prospective tenant more than 10% above what was charged to the last tenant who was living in the unit when the emergency was declared. Berkeley had this very sort of vacancy control through 1995, until the Costa Hawkins Rental Housing Act went into effect and prohibited this protection. In 2018, lawmakers passed Assembly Bill 1919 which amended the price gouging law to include the vacancy control.
For communities like Berkeley, where 45% of tenants are students, this vacancy control during a state of emergency brings huge relief because students move out of their housing very frequently, thereby causing prices of units traditionally rented by students to repeatedly reset to unaffordable “market rates.”
“Tenants all over the state already suffer from exorbitantly high rents caused by a failure to fund affordable housing and state law prevents cities and counties like Berkeley from implementing real rent control ordinances such as vacancy control,” added Berkeley Tenants Union Chair Julia Cato. “These fires make the situation unbelievably worse, and the governor needs to keep these specific tenant protections in place as long as possible.”
Additionally, after the proclamation of a state of emergency, it is illegal for a landlord to evict tenants and then re-rent the vacated unit to another person at a rental price higher than the evicted tenant could have been charged.
The protections under the state’s price gouging law apply to all rental housing (including dormitories owned by UC Berkeley, other state universities, and mobilehome parks), not just housing protected under local governments’ rent control ordinances. Berkeley’s and other local governments’ rent control ordinances remain in effect during the state of emergency and tenants are entitled to protections under whichever law is stronger in their particular situation.
Landlords and other bad actors who violate the anti-gouging law are guilty of a criminal offense, which can result in one-year imprisonment in county jail and/or a fine of up to $10,000. Violators are also subject to civil enforcement actions including civil penalties of up to $5,000 per violation, injunctive relief, and mandatory restitution.
Declarations of statewide emergency due to wildfire and evacuations have been in effect continuously since September 2017, and will continue through at least December 31, 2019.
Berkeley tenants who believe their landlord is violating the law should contact the Berkeley Tenants Union at firstname.lastname@example.org or (510) 982-6696. For tenants outside of Berkeley, contact Tenants Together at 888-495-8020.