Price gouging after Hurricane Michael still under investigation

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A rental sign is posted in front of an apartment complex Tuesday, July 14, 2020, in Phoenix. Housing advocacy groups have joined lawmakers lobbying Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey to extend his coronavirus-era moratorium on evictions when it expires, when the 120-day order ending July 22 was supposed to ensure people would not lose their homes if they fell ill to COVID-19 or lost jobs in the pandemic’s economic fallout. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

BAY COUNTY, Fla. (WMBB) —After Hurricane Michael, it was no secret that prices for everything from water to monthly rent went up. While some call it supply and demand, others call it price gouging.

Price gouging is defined as excessively raising prices on essential goods during a state of emergency. This is compared to their average price in the region over the past 30 days and includes everything from water to dwelling units.

After Hurricane Michael, this is exactly what happened. And under Florida Statute 501.160, it’s illegal.

“You know, the studies they’ve done, the community always comes back stronger, property values are always higher and all that,” said Joel Albertson, an FSU student. “But it’s basically because the people with less resources get priced out.”

Albertson studies social work at Florida State University in Panama City and said, like many others, he struggled to find housing after Hurricane Michael.

“We went from FEMA hotel to FEMA trailer and finally found a house.,” Albertson said. “You know, we jockeyed for positions in front of real estate companies and realtors trying to be the first ones to get in there.”

In a 2019 interview, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody talked with News 13 about price gouging.

“One of the things that’s difficult is investigating, hearing about, or people talking about something without having a specific complaint or the details that would correlate with that,” Moody said. “We haven’t had a lot of complaints specifically as it relates to rental units.”

“We keep asking people to provide that to us and the information so that we can investigate it,” she added.

At the time of the interview, the Attorney General’s office said it was investigating 12 cases involving long term housing rentals.

“It felt like she was blaming me,” Albertson said. “The way she put it was basically if you don’t give us enough information we can’t follow up on it.”

A records request to the Attorney General’s office showed almost 100 complaints regarding housing, hotels, and rentals dated before News 13’s interview with Attorney General Moody, complete with receipt evidence and phone numbers to follow up on.

In some cases, rent went up by as much as 200%.

According to the complaints, a landlord in Mexico Beach raised the rent on a resident’s apartment by 40% after Hurricane Michael made landfall, forcing the resident to vacate. The complaint said that this landlord owned several properties in Bay and Gulf counties and raised the rates on all of them.

The Attorney General’s office said there was still an open investigation into price gouging after Hurricane Michael.

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