Of all the price-related complaints brought to the attention of the Office of the Attorney General after Super Typhoon Yutu in October 2018, the most common was the sudden increase in apartment and housing rental fees.
This, despite a price freeze implemented by the Commonwealth government soon after Yutu’s devastation, which destroyed many homes on Saipan and Tinian, driving up the demand for apartment and other types of shelter.
In response to these complaints, the Consumer Protection Division of the OAG did a series of investigations to confirm the price increase and gather more details, said consumer counsel Michele Harris.
“We have seen several attempts to raise rent following the devastation of [Super] Typhoon Yutu, which left so many on our islands homeless,” she said.
“To date, we have been able to work with landlords to have the rent increases reversed once the landlords were made aware of the price freeze still being in effect,” said Harris, who added they also received price gouging complaints on basic commodities.
The price freeze for the entire CNMI is still in effect after Gov. Ralph DLG Torres extended—for another 30 days—the declaration of major disaster and state of significant emergency. The price freeze is renewed every 30 days.
“The [CPD] division has also investigated other complaints of prices for goods being increased, but investigations into those allegations have not rendered any violations of the Price Freeze Act,” she said.
Price gouging generally takes place after a natural disaster or the declaration of a state of emergency. It involves raising the prices of goods, services, or commodities based on a sudden increase in demand and shortage of goods.
The most common items that are subject to price gouging are food, water, gas, and medicine.
Harris said the governor has constitutional powers to declare price freezes, “which lasts until the governor rescinds it or terminates the declaration of emergency or disaster.
“While under a price freeze, all items for sale and housing rental prices must remain the same,” she added.
She described a price freeze as a sort of blanket of security for consumers, especially in a time of disaster recovery. “Our community continues to suffer great loss from the devasting effects of Yutu, with a large portion of the islands of Tinian and Saipan still living in tents and facing other forms of displacement from loss of jobs, reduced income, and replacement of personal possessions,” she pointed out. “Because of this ongoing state of disaster, the price freeze ensures some protection and security from those who would exploit our community’s vulnerability.”
Residents should get in touch with Harris’ office if they want to file a complaint or have any information on possible price gouging and other violations of the Price Freeze Act. For more information, contact Harris at (670) 2377500.