Sandra Thomas-Comenole can’t rest yet.
Seven weeks after her family lost their home to the Marshall fire, she, her husband and three of their children are in their third house since the fire tore through neighborhoods in Superior, Louisville and unincorporated Boulder County.
As the weeks tick by since the fire, Thomas-Comenole and her family are among the thousands of survivors still searching for long-term housing, only to find sky-high rents and short supplies.
After a short-term rental in Golden and a hotel in Boulder, their latest place to stay is a house in Broomfield rented to them by a local couple who want them out by June. The rent is $4,500 a month, nearly twice the $2,400 a month they paid for their old home in Superior. The family did not have rental insurance and so are covering most of their costs out of pocket.
Her three younger children are commuting an hour each way to their schools on the Monarch campus in south Louisville.
Despite the tight housing market and rising prices in Colorado, the Broomfield home feels like a turning point, giving Thomas-Comenole a little breathing room as she searches for a place where her children can stay in the same school district, alongside other students who know what it feels like to have your home reduced to ash.
“We finally feel like we’re getting our heads above water,” she said.
Exactly how many people displaced by the fire are still looking for new places to live isn’t known, Boulder County Housing and Human Services said. The Dec. 30 fire destroyed more than 1,000 homes in a period when the housing market was already extraordinarily challenging, with soaring prices and record-low inventory. Rents and for-sale prices still are climbing.
One metric is showing improvement: the web traffic to a clearinghouse for rental listings across the region has steadily declined.
In the days after the fire, the Boulder Area Rental Housing Association, or BARHA, set up a website where locals have posted short, medium and long-term rentals.
The site saw 8,500 views in the first week, BARHA board member Todd Ulrich said. Traffic dropped to 3,900 views the following week and then to 625 in the first week of February.
“We’re getting the impression that people are finding housing,” Ulrich said.
Rental vacancies have bounced back quicker than anticipated, he said.
BARHA estimates Boulder County now has a rental vacancy rate approaching 4%, down from roughly 6.5% before the fire, but a significant improvement from the days immediately following, when the number of vacant rentals dipped as low as just five units countywide.
Many smoke-damaged properties that required remediation were brought back to habitable condition more quickly than expected, helping ease demand, Ulrich said.
Calculating the precise vacancy rate is difficult, he said. Many statistics are still being compiled, including how many of the more than 1,000 homes burned were being used as rentals, and how many existing dwellings have been converted to rentals since the fire. Many second-home owners turned their properties into rentals after the fire, Ulrich said.
How monthly rents have been influenced isn’t yet clear, Ulrich said. Countywide rents can vary widely, and BARHA does not compile rent statistics. Rents in the city of Boulder were up nearly 20% in December over the same period the year before, with average rent for a one-bedroom apartment sitting at $2,271, according to ApartmentList.com. Numbers for January, after the fire, were not yet available.
Anecdotally, fire survivors are reporting that rents have shot up sharply, said Kristen Bohanon, the director of development for Sister Carmen Community Center, a family support agency that has been assisting residents displaced by the fire.
That’s adding pressure in a community that was already straining under the weight of extreme housing prices, Bohanon said.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Sister Carmen was helping 250 families with housing costs, averaging $150,000 a year in assistance. But since housing prices began to soar in 2020, the number has climbed to 565 families needing housing cost assistance, now averaging a total of $1.2 million a year for the agency.
For those who lost their homes and were uninsured or underinsured, staying in the area is proving daunting, Bohanan said.
Even those who bought their homes long ago and had affordable mortgages are discovering rents for comparable homes may top $5,000, Bohanan said.
“People thought their money was in their house, and those who may have felt financially stable aren’t as stable as they thought,” she said. “People who have lived here for decades will have to leave.”
Nearly 25,000 households in Boulder County were already spending more than half their income on housing before the fire, a number that has been steadily increasing for years, said Jim Williams, a spokesman for the county’s department of housing and human services.
“The loss of over 1,000 homes … only serves to add pressure to this already challenging circumstance,” Williams said in an email. “This is not sustainable any way you look at it.”
Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser sent a letter to rental listing websites including Airbnb and Zillow in January asking them to monitor their platforms for price gouging in the wake of the fire. Weiser’s office is investigating price gouging complaints, according to a spokesman, who, citing an open investigation, declined to provide specific examples.
Boulder County’s residential real estate market remains cutthroat, said Brigette Modglin, who is on the market trends committee of the Denver Metro Association of Realtors.
The number of homes for sale in the association’s 11-county coverage area in January hit the lowest ever recorded, with just 1,184 active listings, down from a historical average of more than 12,000, and a dip from the previous record low of 1,477, set in December.
That number is part of a nationwide shortage of housing amid a frenzy of homebuying over the past two years, Modglin said, sped up by the specter of looming federal interest rate hikes that will send monthly mortgage payments higher.
How the Marshall fire worsened the housing crunch in Boulder County and the region is still coming into focus because so many homeowners are still hashing out negotiations with insurance companies, Modglin said.
The median sale price of single family homes in Boulder County hit $745,500 in January, a 17.4% increase over the same month in 2021, and a 4.7% increase over December, according to the group’s statistics. There were just 45 active residential listings in the county in January, down 78.9% from the 213 listings in January 2021.
The supply crunch in Boulder County is likely to persist, Modglin said. Costs to rebuild homes that burned are likely to be high in the face of soaring raw materials prices and a stubborn labor shortage. Rebuilding lost homes could take 18 months or more, she said.