The Marshall Fire destroyed more than 1,000 homes on Dec. 31, 2021. The Colorado Attorney General is asking residents displaced by the fire to report price gouging as they search for housing. Credit: Anthony Albidrez

Since the Marshall Fire razed more than a thousand homes, displaced Boulder County residents have been sounding alarms on social media about alleged exorbitant rental rates and hotel costs.

The rental market in Boulder County is tight and hotel beds are limited. But these concerns over price gouging are what Colorado lawmakers sought to prevent when they passed a 2020 law prohibiting businesses from charging “unreasonably excessive” prices in the months after a declared disaster. 

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser said he was involved in crafting the law and is prepared to enforce it. 

“We have serious penalties we can use if and when we get a case that we’re concerned violates the law,” Weiser said in an interview with the Boulder Reporting Lab on Tuesday. “We’re willing to go to court and we will take on any actor who is acting in an abusive manner that takes advantage of people who are vulnerable.”

Weiser is asking residents to file complaints to the Attorney General’s Office through StopFraudColorado.gov. He said to document “out of whack” prices in writing, if possible.

The law, House Bill 1414, doesn’t explicitly define price gouging or mention housing. But Weiser said it protects consumers from “unreasonable” prices for “necessities,” which the attorney general’s office considers to include housing. 

Price gouging, he said, is determined by comparing prices among sellers. 

“If some sellers are acting in a way that’s unreasonable, and out of step with normal supply and demand, we can view them as engaging in what economists would call ‘opportunistic behavior,’ or what I would call preying on people when they’re vulnerable,” he said. “That’s price gouging.” 

The law gives enforcement discretion to the attorney general and district attorney. For charges that stand up in court, penalties can amount to $20,000 per violation, according to the Attorney General’s Office. 

Weiser said his office has not taken any enforcement actions since the law passed and cannot discuss pending investigations. 

If a case ends up in court, it would be the first to test the limits of the statute, he said. But he said he hopes that’s not the case. 

“In Colorado, we are at our best when we’re looking after and thinking about one another. And this law, as much as anything, is a reminder of that obligation to one another and is an explicit call on people to treat people fairly and appropriately,” he said. 

Weiser added, “If you’re here doing business and doing business for the long term, you don’t want to be known as someone who is essentially taking advantage of vulnerable people.”

John Herrick

John Herrick reports on housing, climate, health and local government for Boulder Reporting Lab. He previously covered the state Capitol for The Colorado Independent and environmental policy for VTDigger.org. He is interested in stories about people, power and fairness.