Before the Marshall fire burned about 1,000 homes in Louisville and Superior and rained potentially toxic ash on hundreds of others, Colorado strengthened laws for tenants doing battle with landlords.
One law change in 2020 prohibited price gouging, including for rent, after a disaster. Another recent legislative update said landlords have 24 hours to address matters of “life, health and safety,” or put tenants in a hotel if fixing the issue will take longer. And one more made it tougher for landlords to retaliate against tenants who complain about health concerns by terminating or not renewing their lease.
The laws seemed spot on to help protect Boulder County residents renting apartments and homes after the fast-moving fire skipped across the fields and scorched subdivisions, a hotel and multiple businesses.
Yet dozens of tenants affected by the most destructive fire in Colorado history say that hasn’t been the case.
A family of six that has rented a five-bedroom home in Superior for the last five years still has a layer of ash in their attic. The landlord wouldn’t pay to replace the home’s insulation, which an inspector said was damaged by smoke, and when the family complained, the landlord threatened to end their lease. They were able to work it out — though their rent will increase by 12.5% and the family, including a boy with asthma, is still living amid ash.
Another renter said she is being kicked out of her condo in the Rock Creek area of Superior because she was considered a “pain in the ass” by the management company. The fire left ash on the kitchen floor and in the window sills, but when tenant Beth Blacker initially asked the property manager to get it cleaned, she said she was told it wasn’t the company’s responsibility.
Blacker followed up by citing the so-called “habitability” law, requiring the landlord to mitigate matters of health and safety, and got a call back within an hour. She also complained about the smoky smell that was giving her massive headaches in the weeks after the fire, and pestered the property manager about reimbursing her for air purifiers.
When her lease wasn’t renewed, the property management company told her it was because the company knew she “wasn’t happy” living there, Blacker said.
“I’m very happy living here,” she said. “I would stay here if they’d let me.”
Now she’s moving in with a friend while she searches for an apartment, which she expects will cost her far more than the $1,475 she’s been paying. Comparable condos are now going for $1,800 per month. “Some places are asking for six months of security deposit,” Blacker said. “I don’t know who has that kind of money hanging around.
“I’m OK with being a pain in the ass. Because guess what? People who are a pain in the ass get stuff done. I don’t think of myself as a pain in the ass; I think of myself as very action-oriented.”
An organization that advocates for tenants in Boulder County, called the East County Housing Opportunity Coalition or ECHO, has interviewed 20 people who say they have been victims of price gouging, retaliation or unsafe conditions following the fire. More than 60 people signed up for free, housing-related legal consultations the coalition funded through a grant from Ascent Community Church in Louisville.
“We have a lot of stories where landlords did minimal mitigation and took the insurance money and said, ‘This is all we’re going to do,’” said Annmarie Jensen, executive director of the coalition.
Some tenants are staying quiet, living in a smoke-damaged home, because they don’t want to lose their place to live, she said. It’s even scarier to speak up in this real estate market, where there is a massive shortage of homes and rental properties across Colorado and particularly in the Marshall fire area, where thousands of people were displaced last December.
One multigenerational family, with grandchildren, parents and grandparents in one house, saw their rent rise from $3,600 before the fire to $5,500 after, Jensen said.
“There seem to be people profiting from other people’s pain,” she said.
No price gouging charges filed, investigations under way
The way the price-gouging law is written, it’s difficult for tenants to take action. It requires that the Office of the Attorney General or the local district attorney file charges against offenders, and does not allow for a private attorney to file a case on a tenant’s behalf. Six months after the fire, no one has been charged with price gouging, though investigations are ongoing.
The law prohibits charging “excessive prices” for essential products or services within six months of a disaster declaration. That time limit is about to expire for the Marshall fire, which tore through on Dec. 30.
In January, Attorney General Phil Weiser fired off letters to Airbnb, Zillow, Vrbo and REColorado warning landlords about the price-gouging law. As of last week, the office had received 95 complaints of price gouging related to housing after the Marshall fire, which are under investigation, attorney general’s spokesman Lawrence Pacheco said.
The Boulder County District Attorney’s Office also has no prosecutions related to post-fire price gouging, though it is looking into complaints received from residents, spokeswoman Shannon Carbone said.
The challenge is in proving a price-gouging case in Colorado’s current real estate market, which has seen housing prices skyrocket during the last year. “The Marshall fire compounded this issue,” she said. “However, proving a particular rent increase is directly due to the Marshall fire as opposed to the already inflated market is difficult.”
And the new state law does not specifically define price gouging with a percentage; it only states that “excessive” increases are prohibited.
The Colorado Apartment Association, a voice for landlords across the state, said it has received no specific allegations of price gouging but has seen reports of 10-15% increases in rent. “If some residents face 10 to 15% rent increases in their renewal contracts, this isn’t an indication of profiteering or greed,” said spokesman Henry Eisler. “It’s the natural outcome of a housing market plagued by historically high inflation, historically low vacancy and a declining rate of new construction.”
While some “bad actors” may exist, the overall rising rates are due to the “market at work,” he said.
The Denver area market, which includes Boulder, saw a housing vacancy rate of 4.3% in the first quarter of this year, which is historically low. “Nearly a dozen Coloradans compete for every available unit — and, unfortunately, the metro area’s residential development rate continues to decline,” Eisler said.
Landlord groups have “worked diligently” to help residents displaced by the Marshall fire, Eisler said, including by creating a directory with thousands of vacant rentals, some with reduced rents, waived fees, and free first months of rent.
Laws aren’t working as intended against “bad actors”
Six months after the fire, the new laws aren’t helping tenants as they were intended, said Stephen H. Hennessy, a Boulder attorney who specializes in housing rights.
“They were intended to improve protections, but in my experience, it hasn’t really been playing out the way it should,” he said.
Hennessy is particularly frustrated by the price-gouging law, which is not preventing tenants from losing their homes or paying excessive rent increases, he said. It should have been written, he said, to allow people who have been victimized to hire an attorney and bring a private lawsuit. “What good is the law doing?” he said. “This law is on point. It’s designed to address the exact problem that people are facing, but it’s enforceable solely by the attorney general or district attorney’s office.”
Blacker, who must move out of her condo by the end of July, said the experience has left renters feeling as if they’re on their own. “Rent should not have gone up as much as it did,” she said. “It seems unconscionable to me that the state hasn’t been able to do something to control it.”
And Anna Poling, whose family of six is facing a 12.5% increase in rent, far more than any increase she’s seen in the last five years in the same house, said she feels stuck. She used her maiden name for this story for fear that her landlord would terminate the lease if he knew she was speaking up.
“We are literally at the mercy of our landlord,” she said. “There is nowhere else to go. That’s the biggest problem. One thousand homes burned down. There is no inventory.”