Christina Grana has been trying to move out of her rental home in Porter Ranch for weeks. Soon after the natural gas leak started in the nearby Aliso Canyon Storage Facility in October, her whole family got nosebleeds. Her 15-year-old son also became severely ill. But with 2,500 other families also leaving to get away from the leak, it's been hard to find a new place.
"I couldn't find a hotel within 20 miles," she says.
She's also been looking at short-term rental homes, but each time she's approached a landlord, she's lost out to someone willing to pay more.
"I've lost three houses," she says. "The prospective landlords are now charging $10,000 and $11,000 a month. People are so desperate to get in those houses."
Southern California Gas Company, which operates the Aliso Canyon facility, is paying up to $7,500 a month in rental reimbursement, according to Kristina Lloyd, a company spokeswoman. Ordinarily that would be more than enough to rent a home. But with desirable homes in short supply, some renters are willing to pay significantly more than the SoCalGas reimbursement rate. In effect, it appears the SoCalGas reimbursement has helped to inflate rental prices.
Price gouging in the wake of a declared disaster is illegal. Brian Stiger, the director of the county's Department of Consumer and Business Affairs, says his agency has received numerous complaints in the wake of the Porter Ranch leak.
"We’re very concerned about that and we’re looking into it," he said.
Investigators must look at each case individually to determine whether the law has been broken. If they find a violation, they will turn over cases to the L.A. City Attorney's Office for potential prosecution.
"We have to find out what the landlord was charging before the declared disaster and what the landlord is charging now, and weigh that with supply and demand and other factors," Stiger said.
SoCalGas also is looking into allegations.
"If people are taking advantage of the situation, we’re looking into it and working with the city to provide information for their investigation," Lloyd said.
Grana says she currently pays $2,750 for a smaller four-bedroom house in Porter Ranch. She says her current landlord wants her to leave so the landlord can file a damages claim against the gas company for lost income.
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After losing out on three houses, Grana says she is close to signing a lease for a house in Simi Valley. It originally listed for $6,500, she says, but the landlord now is asking $11,000 — plus a one-year lease. SoCalGas expects the leak to be stopped by the end of March at the latest, and plans to pay pay rental reimbursement only through the end of April. Grana says she can't afford the $11,000-a-month rent after the SoCalGas subsidy goes away.
"We are not richie rich people," she says.
But if she holds out for a shorter-term lease, she's been told the landlord will find someone else who's willing to sign a year lease.
"She knows people are desperate and she can get it," Grana says.