Penny Comenole looks at the remains of her bed. Her family home in the Sagamore subdivision of Superior was destroyed in the Marshall fire. (Steve Peterson, The Colorado Sun)

Like so many others, Sandra Thomas-Comenole and her family fled the Marshall fire with little more than the clothes they were wearing. 

In the case of her four children, ages 10-20, it was pajamas. Their home was one of dozens destroyed in the Sagamore subdivision at the west end of Superior on Dec. 30. 

“The kids lost everything they ever owned,” Thomas-Comenole said from a weekly rental house in Golden. “Their trophies and awards. Every Christmas present. A home is a place of safety, but ours is gone. Our family has to be that place of safety for each other now.”

Thomas-Comenole and her family are now one of hundreds of households desperately searching for a place to live in the wake of a fire that devoured more than a thousand homes in Superior, Louisville and unincorporated Boulder County — a search proving daunting in the face of a historically tight and expensive housing market in the area.

“We’re going after every opportunity we see,” Thomas-Comenole said. 

She’s hoping to stay close to Superior so her children can stay in the Monarch school district. 

“We call every place that comes up on Zillow and Craigslist,” she said. “If someone even picks up the phone, they usually say sorry, it’s just been rented.”

“As close to zero as possible”

Many of those displaced by the Marshall fire will face an uphill battle in finding new housing, said Todd Ulrich, a board member with the Boulder Area Rental Housing Association, or BARHA.

The rental vacancy rate in Boulder County will likely “be pushed as close to zero as possible,” Ulrich told The Colorado Sun. 

“Everything anywhere close to Superior and Louisville will be rented very quickly, and that’s going to force people farther from the area,” he said. “There wasn’t enough housing here to begin with.”

In addition to the more than 1,000 homes destroyed, initial research shows perhaps another 2,000 have smoke and water damage requiring remediation, Ulrich said, meaning even more people will need medium-term housing.

A pandemic-era influx to the area had already pushed housing stock to historic lows, Ulrich said. 

Just 96 single-family homes and condos were listed for sale in Boulder County in November, down 75% from the prior November, and the lowest number ever recorded, according to the Denver Metro Association of Realtors. The median sale price was $735,000, up more than 15% from a year prior.

Rentals were similarly tight. A healthy vacancy rate is around 4%, but Boulder County had been “well below that” before the fire, Ulrich said.

The impacts are already being felt. Homes that would have been rented for $2,400 before the fire are now being listed for $3,000 or more, Ulrich said. 

Susan Thomas-Comenole, left, with daughter Penny, husband Mike, and daughter Kaylan, as they examine the ruins of their former home in Superior. The family is on the hunt for a new place to live. (Steve Peterson, The Colorado Sun)

Meanwhile, rebuilding burned homes is likely going to be a battle of its own. 

“There are supply chain and labor shortages everywhere,” Ulrich said. “The permitting process is lengthy. There are a lot of challenges to come. Everyone will be scrambling for a while. Expect a lot of gridlock and expense.”

BARHA has been coordinating with local emergency response agencies and has created a directory of available rentals and other resources, Ulrich said.

Affordable housing woes

Housing affordability will continue to be an extremely difficult issue, said Jim Williams, spokesman for Boulder County Housing and Human Services, which is taking a leading role in coordinating efforts to find new homes for Marshall fire survivors. 

Williams said case managers have already signed up more than 700 households at the Boulder County Disaster Assistance Center, which helps people displaced by the fire with a range of services, from providing assistance funds to navigating insurance — and finding housing. 

Many of those seeking help need housing that is not only affordable, but that can accommodate mobility issues among people who are older or disabled. It’s going to be a struggle.

Williams said “a series of disasters” in recent years, stretching back to floods in 2013 and several wildfires since, have destroyed some of the county’s affordable housing stock. 

The department, which administers federal housing choice vouchers, held a one-day lottery in December just to get on a waiting list for 73 affordable homes under construction in Longmont, and for an additional 100 housing vouchers. They received more than 5,000 applications. 

“The need for affordable housing has been huge for a while,” Williams said. “We already had tens of thousands of households spending more than half their income just to keep a roof over their heads.”

As multiple agencies work on finding housing, Williams said they are looking across the Front Range. 

“We know there’s housing available regionally,” he said. “It’s a matter of assessing everyone’s needs and trying to see what will work. People really want to stay near their schools, their doctors, their jobs.”

For Marshall fire survivors, “It’s still fairly early,” Williams said. “People are doing all they can to get their feet under them after being displaced.”

The center has already distributed more than $2 million in direct grant payments from the Community Foundation of Boulder County to displaced people. 

“That money is padding for them as they figure out what to do next,” Williams said, adding that displaced people are also eligible for funds through the Federal Emergency Management Agency or FEMA. 

“Couch surfing gets old”

Just how far those funds will go is yet to be seen for some families. Thomas-Comenole said the weekly rental house where she’s staying with her husband and four children was initially rented to her at $3,000 a month, but the owner told her Wednesday the rate would go up to $6,000 a month after January. She paid $2,500 a month in rent in Superior. Her family didn’t have rental insurance, and their funds from FEMA are unlikely to cover the cost of the house beyond this month.

Susan Thomas-Comenole and her family visit the remains of their home. She hopes she can keep her kids in the same school district, but family housing in the area is sparse. (Steve Peterson, The Colorado Sun)

Thomas-Comenole is one of many displaced people leaning on “Marshall Fire Housing Needs and Availability,” a Facebook page founded by a pair of Denver-area real estate agents that seeks to connect people who need housing with those who have housing to offer.

The group, which had nearly 3,000 members as of Thursday, is focused on providing long-term housing.

“We’ve had lots of offers for shared housing and rooms and basements, but couch surfing gets old pretty quick,” said Shannon Schliep, who founded the group with fellow real estate agent Amanda DiVito Parle.

Schliep said she isn’t tracking how many displaced people find homes through the group, but has seen several success stories. But she said the reality is many displaced people likely won’t be able to stay in the area. She saw similar situations unfold after the East Troublesome fire devastated the Grand Lake area in 2020, which displaced her parents-in-law.

“I completely understand wanting to stay near where you lived, but the reality is we already faced a huge shortage of houses for sale and rent,” she said. “We have people offering homes for rent in Denver, Parker or Greenwood Village, sometimes even farther out. Those haven’t gained a lot of traction yet, but I think as people realize how sparse rentals are, those will become more attractive.”

That’s especially true considering how many of those displaced were families who need multiple bedrooms and space for pets, Schliep said. Though some landlords posting on the page don’t allow pets, Schliep said she’s seen some loosen their rules. 

Some of those displaced have struck gold online. Ashley Stringham, who lived with her partner and 10-month-old daughter not far from Thomas-Comenole in the Sagamore neighborhood, got connected through Facebook to a landlord who offered up a home for free for several months in Denver’s Highland neighborhood. 

“It’s the kindest thing anyone’s ever done for us,” Stringham said. The house will give the family time to search for a new home at a less frantic pace than some.

In the face of the loss of their home, Stringham finds solace in her daughter, Dylan. 

“She’s been a rock star through this,” Stringham said. “She has no idea what’s going on. Our priority is to make things as stable for her as possible. We’ll make a new home for her.”

David Gilbert

David is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. Twitter: @davidgilbert4u