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Michele Willer-Allred, Freelance Reporter
10:01 am PST February 12, 2019

Multiple reports of price gouging activity in Malibu since the Woolsey Fire have prompted the City to strengthen its laws, while also coordinating with the Los Angeles County District Attorney to prosecute violators.

On Monday, Feb. 11, the Malibu City Council unanimously adopted an ordinance amending the City’s Municipal Code prohibiting price gouging in the city during a local state of emergency declaration.

The council also amended the code to increase protections against price gouging and subject violators to administrative penalties.

The ordinance is intended to strengthen an existing urgency ordinance, approved by the council on Dec. 4, by extending state law protections against price gouging in the city.

According to state law, businesses cannot increase the price of vital goods and services by more than 10 percent within 30 days of a declared emergency.

City Attorney Christi Hogin said that since the City adopted its original ordinance, it has received multiple reports of alleged price gouging activity, which are currently being investigated in coordination with the County Department of Consumer and Business Affairs and the District Attorney’s office.

“Given the sudden, acute need for housing within the city, both transient and long-term in nature, these amendments will enable City officials to better protect the victims of the Woolsey Fire, by facilitating the prosecution of bad actors and by enabling immediate action against predatory conduct,” Hogin wrote in a staff report.

The amendments approved by the council include a definition of “rental price” that clarifies the baseline price used to evaluate price increases, and captures new properties on the market. Rental prices for the properties are limited to 160 percent of the fair market rent established by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The proposed amendments also clarify that the City’s protections against price gouging extend to all types of rental housing, regardless of the length of the lease, and subject violations to the City’s administrative penalty provisions.

Hogin warned that violators are subject to administrative and criminal penalties, though the only mechanism for the public to get prosecution on price gouging is to file a complaint.

Hogin explained the definition of price gouging, noting that it has to be something completely out of line.

“If you see something that’s a few hundred dollars more a month than you would’ve expected, that’s not price gouging,” she said.

Councilman Skylar Peak emphasized that City officials don’t want to “meddle in the market, but we very much so want to protect the residents that live here, and we don’t want price gouging to occur.”

Peak offered a hypothetical example of price gouging, such as if you had a home for rent for $10,000 a month before the fire, and raised it to $20,000 a month after the fire.

Peak also urged residents to contact the City or District Attorney’s office if they suspect price gouging in the community.

Planning Commissioner John Mazza, who spoke at the meeting, said that he sees evidence of inflated rental prices throughout the city, citing rental listings that reach as much as $150,000 a month. Mazza said he wants the council to ban short-term rentals, which inflate profits. The move also would free up housing for locals, he said.

More Malibu residents opt in to country’s debris removal program

In an update on the fire debris removal program, City officials noted that, as of Feb. 11, 288 applications had been submitted and 240 approved for the opt-in program offered by Los Angeles County and the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery. 

Residents whose properties were impacted by the fire have until this Friday, Feb. 15, to choose between opting in or out.

About 488 residential structures were destroyed in the fire and another 100 damaged, according to statistics provided by the City.

Craig George, environmental sustainability director for the City of Malibu, said that CalRecycle commenced debris removal in the Point Dume residential area, as well as around Malibu High School since those are “priority areas.”

George reminded the council that CalRecycle is expecting to increase the total number of teams in the field doing debris removal, and said that residents can expect to see a lot more trucks on the highway.

“[The teams] are very conscientious about not disturbing whole neighborhoods, so they really plan out where they’re going to go,” he stressed.

George noted that the rest of the applications received so far are being processed.

Another 120 applications have been submitted by residents who are opting out of the state-sponsored debris removal program, with 55 permits issued so far. Residents planning to complete independent debris removal must still meet requirements set by the state and county.

George anticipates the rest of the opt-out permits to be approved in the next couple of weeks.

He also predicts a “surge” in applications at the Feb. 15 closing date for the CalRecycle program, but also admitted that there will be property owners who do nothing.

At the end of the closing date, George said City staff plans to review all the applications and begin comparing them against addresses and a physical survey of destroyed homes. 

George emphasized that an abatement program would be costly to the City, so he hopes people choose to opt in.

“I know there’s a lot of trepidation by some people that don’t want to have their foundation removed [if opting in], and that’s understandable,” he said.

George stressed that the City is not requiring the home’s foundation to be removed, and that people can have their foundation investigated to prove that it’s viable.

George said in talking with officials in other jurisdictions that experienced large-scale fires, such as Thomas Fire and Tubbs Fire, they are “amazed” with how far ahead of schedule the Woolsey Fire is in terms of the debris removal process, compared to where they were.

“It is a process,” George admitted. “Unfortunately, it does take time, but we’re finally rolling and expect this can be done in the next couple of months.”

City Manager Reva Feldman said the City is working with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, which has agreed to open a one-stop shop in Malibu staffed with an official to review and approve plans to rebuild properties.

Round it up

A brief recap of action from the Monday, Feb. 11 meeting of the Malibu City Council

• The council unanimously approved the introduction of an ordinance amending the Local Coastal Program and allowing the City to modify standards and procedures to facilitate the rebuilding of structures damaged or destroyed by the fire. Regulations for temporary housing, allowing removal of certain native trees, and allowing changes to onsite water treatment systems were included.

• The council unanimously approved adding the Point Dume Nature Preserve parking improvement project along Cliffside Drive to the City’s capital improvement project list for this fiscal year. The City expects to enter into a reimbursement agreement with Friends of Point Dume and Astani to fund the project.

• City Manager Reva Feldman announced that the public comment period for a new trail proposed by the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, to connect Murphy Way with the current Escondido Falls Trail, has been extended until April 4. The study is available at mrca.ca.gov/about/land-use-planning-documents/.