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CA lawmakers consider ending disaster price-gouging protections as high prices squeeze Californians

In the last several years, California has experienced devastating wildfires, extreme drought, a deadly pandemic, and the worst methane leak in U.S. history, among other emergencies. Unfortunately, some California landlords see opportunity in disaster. For example, after the 2015 methane leak in Aliso Canyon, landlords charged victims up to $9000 for temporary shelter. After the 2017 North Bay fires, landlords increased rents for victims by up to 36%.

Disasters aren’t new for California, but against the state’s worsening housing crisis, the importance of accessible, stable housing after disaster is clear.

The passage of AB 2820 and AB 1919 in California was meant to stop blatantly predatory conduct after disaster and strengthen protections for victims of price gouging in emergencies. Now, a few years and natural disasters later, those protections are under attack via a bill currently moving through the state legislature, SB 1133 (Archuleta). SB 1133 will undo decades of price gouging protections for Californians at a time when the state is reeling from both natural and man-made disasters and gives a green light to unscrupulous landlords to prey upon victims of emergencies by increasing rents above the allowable 10% during declarations of emergency. California can’t afford for SB 1133 to become law.

SB 1133 seeks to eliminate housing from the anti-price gouging protections in Penal Code Section 396, which is a provision of law used by advocates across the state to prevent excessive rent increases for disaster victims. When I was a tenant attorney in Los Angeles, I once relied on those anti-price gouging protections for housing to prevent unjustified and excessive rent increases for a building full of elders after a corporate landlord purchased their building. When the building sold, the new owner quickly increased rents by over 60% for everyone there, many of whom were disabled elders and all of whom already spent between 30%-40% of their limited fixed incomes on rent. The rent increases would have forced them out of their homes — the only law that kept them housed was the anti-price gouging protections for housing in PC Section 396.

Proponents of SB 1133 claim that businesses are unfairly subject to unjust punishment because of PC Section 396. However, landlords who price gouge are hardly prosecuted under this section. For example, landlords increased rent by up to 36% after the 2017 North Bay fires, which scorched more than 200,000 acres of land and forced 90,000 people to evacuate their homes. Even though the Sonoma County District attorney’s office investigated over 220 complaints of price gouging, they only filed four criminal cases against the most egregious actors, and the Attorney General only filed one criminal case. Meanwhile, people were forced to live among the toxic smoke of their burnt homes because they couldn’t afford a home to rent. SB 1133 isn’t about addressing unjust prosecution; it’s about money and creating opportunity for profit, even when the opportunity is people in need of housing after they’ve lost theirs.

Additionally, the bill’s sponsor (the California Apartment Association, a landlord lobbying group) and author say SB 1133 is necessary to increase transparency for businesses that get confused about compliance during a declaration of emergency, even though businesses have resources available at the local and state levels to determine if a proclamation of emergency is in effect. SB 1133 is not about ensuring businesses are less “confused” about emergency proclamations – that’s already in the law.

We know surviving a disaster adversely impacts individuals and communities. Studies show that long after disaster, individuals experience post-traumatic stress due to housing loss, increased health conditions like stroke, heart disease, and lifelong chronic illnesses, and increased homelessness – all of which disproportionately impact people of color.  These individual impacts coalesce to impact whole communities.

The devastating community impact after the 2018 Camp Fire — the most destructive in California history — is still felt today. The Camp Fire displaced over 80% of Paradise’s population and destroyed 90% of housing. Consequently, people were forced into neighboring communities like Chico that didn’t have the capacity to house them. At that moment, some Chico landlords increased rents by 15%, creating an immoral bidding war among survivors who were sleeping in garages, tents, and shelters. Years after the Camp Fire, communities in Paradise and the surrounding areas have seen increased housing instability and homelessness. If passed, SB1133 would allow corporations and unscrupulous landlords to capitalize on the needs of people like those who survived the Camp Fire when they are trying to survive.

You might think a bill with this much impact would receive special consideration by legislators – particularly those representing districts with victims of past and future disaster. Not only was there very little discussion about the devastating yet highly predictable potential impacts of SB 1133, the bill also passed out of its legislative policy committee with a majority vote.

But the legislature is still in session, and there is time to stop the bill. SB 1133 is currently in the California Assembly’s Appropriations Committee awaiting an August hearing date, where we will demand elected representatives vote against greed and protect displaced Californians.

Help stop price gouging after disaster. Call your state legislator and demand a NO vote on SB 1133.


The environmental justice logic behind Cori Bush’s fight for the eviction moratorium

“Courtney McKinney, director of communications at the nonprofit Western Center on Law and Poverty, says the U.S. should create a system that permanently limits the prevalence of evictions. The center is working on building state-based legal assistance funds, dubbed “homelessness prevention funds.” Across the country, just 10 percent of renters who go through an eviction process have legal representation, compared to 90 percent of landlords. ”

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Racism fuels wildfire 

California is burning out of control, in part, because of racism toward indigenous people and practices. We can’t afford to continue this way. 

At the beginning of the month, the Trump Administration issued a memo to stop diversity training for federal agencies; the Administration called lessons about America’s history of racism “anti-American propaganda.” This week, the president came to California, where millions of acres burn out of control, in part, due to a legacy of racism.

It’s hard to hear bad things about the country you love — it’s hard to learn about all of the times this country betrayed itself to uphold systems and philosophies founded on white supremacy. It’s frustrating to learn, if you didn’t already know, that racist practices shaped this country. It’s more frustrating to see the results play out in the form of uncontrolled burning land and stifling, apocalyptic skies.

Climate change is undoubtedly playing a role in the increasing intensity of fire season, but wildfires were a part of the California landscape before our human consumption footprint got so out of control. The path away from a dystopian America is to look ourselves in the eye, see who we really are, and move forward.

The United States, California, and every other state in this country was founded via the violent removal of people who lived here first — people who held and hold the wisdom we need to survive, live, and thrive here now. For California, the first step toward healing – for the land, for our communities, and for our people — is to resurrect practices from the land’s native ancestors, those who knew that survival requires balance, communion, and stewardship.

According to reporting by the New York Times, “In recent years, momentum has built for purposefully setting fires in certain areas to help thin vegetation and restore ecosystems that would naturally burn more frequently, if not for California’s policy of more than a century requiring that all fires be put out. Before Euro-American settlement in California in the 1800s, about 1.5 million acres of forest burned each year… roughly the same amount that has burned so far this year. That aggressive fire-suppression policy came at the expense of Native American tribes, who had for thousands of years harnessed fire to help ensure that the forests where they lived were healthy — that the plants that fed them were able to flourish, that fires didn’t burn too hot and destructively.”

Both the state and federal government “historically banned tribal burning;” for more than a century California has denied native tribes the right to practice traditional controlled burn techniques, while forcibly displacing them.

We can’t afford to continue with the paradigm of constant expansion and displacement rooted in “Manifest Destiny,” a European-colonial philosophy that ignores, disrespects, and neglects centuries of learned knowledge by native people. That fatal disconnect is illustrated by communities that overturn prescriptions for controlled burns over concerns of inconvenience, only to burn from uncontrolled wildfire years later. Or continuing to build in high risk areas, and spending millions to protect homes in those places, when it would be best for the collective if the land was allowed to burn.

Instead of outrage-laced videos taking vague, unproductive jabs at climate deniers, Governor Newsom could instead take dramatic action to reprioritize indigenous people and wisdom on this land with the full weight (and resources) of the 5th largest economy in the world. He could also stop signing fracking permits and allowing the continued pollution of low-income communities across California.

Americans as a whole do not understand that racism is an insidious illness that plagues ALL of us. Though we have the most diverse country on the planet, we cling to a system founded by men who came from Europe, who did not have generations of learned wisdom about this land. Now that centuries have passed, we don’t have time for it anymore — it’s not working, and we’re choking.

In California, to move in a healthier, more sustainable and inclusive path forward, we should start with controlled burns led by native people.