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Samaritan's Purse volunteers sift through ashes to look for personal possessions of the Christensen family that remain after the Marshall Fire on Feb. 16, 2022, in Louisville. Samaritan's Purse, an evangelical Christian humanitarian aid organization, provides disaster relief services nationwide. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Ash from the Marshall fire coated the floors and window sills in Beth Blacker’s apartment. 

But the management company for her Superior apartment complex said it wasn’t responsible for the professional cleaning and air-quality testing she wanted.

Blacker, who continued advocating for the cleanup, said her property manager eventually decided not to renew or break her lease but then threatened to sue Blacker if she left the apartment without paying for rent. 

“I liked where I was living but they didn’t give me a choice,” Blacker said last week. She now lives in Lafayette.

Blacker’s experience represents one of many challenges faced by many renters who lived through the Marshall fire. After the fire burned more than 1,000 homes one year ago this week, renters whose homes were damaged by smoke and ash found themselves navigating an expensive new reality. Some experienced health issues related to their contaminated homes. Others had their leases ended by landlords when they asked for professional cleaning.

After the Marshall fire, Beth Blacker noticed smoke damage and ash left in her rental unit of two years and is now getting removed from her lease for requesting the damage to be cleaned. “I take care of the places I live; I am proud of where I live,” Blacker said. “I don’t want to feel like I can’t be happy where I live because of property management companies.” (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

After the fire, the East County Housing Opportunity Coalition, or ECHO, interviewed renters who were displaced because their homes burned or were damaged by smoke and ash. The nonprofit advocates for more affordable housing options in Boulder County, where 54,000 residents or 1 in 6 people pay 50% or more of their income for housing. It is typically recommended people spend no more than a third of their income on housing.

Through dozens of in-person and online surveys, and by facilitating legal services for fire survivors who were renters, ECHO identified three major issues in need of policy change: Colorado’s habitability law, retaliation and price gouging after disasters.

The Marshall fire: One year later

It has been one year since the Marshall fire destroyed hundreds of houses and businesses in parts of Louisville, Superior and Boulder County. One year of sorting through what was lost. One year of trying to create a new normal. And one year of making a new home.

Read our series revisiting the Marshall fire one year later. >> SERIES

The organization produced a report last month outlining the issues, and now, ECHO leaders are sounding the alarm to encourage the state legislature to examine Colorado housing laws and consider policy changes that will help renters the next time there’s a disaster. 

After the fire, ECHO said news coverage focused on rebuilding efforts with little focus on the experience of renters, especially those whose homes had smoke and ash damage.

“We wanted to discover what was really going on,” said Annmarie Jensen, founder and executive director of ECHO. “We figured if this was something that was a surprise to us, that others would not realize how bad it is for renters, and how the law just doesn’t really cover what they need.”

Colorado law requires residential leases to carry a habitability warranty, guaranteeing that landlords will keep living spaces generally safe and fit for tenants.

But ECHO leaders said the law has shortcomings. 

The law has no statutory definition of when a rental property is safe to inhabit after a disaster, such as a flood or fire. Families often prematurely re-enter and develop symptoms such as headaches, respiratory distress and dizziness caused by the toxic materials that enter a home during a fire, according to the report.

Often, the tenant must persuade their landlord to clean the home. In these cases, landlords are often limited by what their insurance companies will pay for, the report states. Renters who had smoke and ash damage and purchased air filters and air testing equipment often conducted cleaning at their homes, even though the remediation was dangerous for an untrained resident to do on their own, according to the report.

Now, ECHO leaders are asking lawmakers to include a health-based standard into the law that determines when a unit is safe enough to occupy. 

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has set cleanup standards for methamphetamine labs, Jensen said, and it could create a separate standard for structures containing toxic substances following a wildfire.

Brittany Comer had lived in Colorado for only a month when the Marshall fire burned several townhouses a few blocks from her rented home.

When she returned, ash and soot coated furniture, floors and most of her possessions. The place smelled like smoke, causing migraines and sore throats for the family of four. 

Her property manager sent a letter soon after to residents reminding residents that they still needed to pay rent. But there was no information about whether the home was safe to live in, she said.

“You could just tell it was more about them getting their rent still, and for them to be comfortable, rather than for us to have a home that was safe and remediated,” Comer said.

A landlord is required by law to arrange separate housing for tenants if their unit is uninhabitable after a disaster. However, renters are sometimes told by their landlord that they have to pay for both a hotel, and their rent, according to the report, which calls on the Colorado legislature to require a landlord or property manager to inform the tenant about their rights under the law immediately after a disaster.

“We never received information about whether it was safe,” Comer said in an interview earlier this month. 

Another woman, interviewed by ECHO, had smoke and ash damage at her rental property. She learned her insulation needed to be replaced and the home had to be cleaned by professionals. The woman’s landlord conducted duct cleaning and carpet steaming, which led to the discovery of furnace damage and rodents in the home, according to the report released by ECHO. 

The family did not want to remain in the rental because of those problems. But the property manager would not allow them to break their lease, according to the report.

Who pays for what remediation can be confusing, especially if both the tenant and landlord have disaster insurance.

“There is no clarity in the habitability law about who is responsible for remediating smoke and fire damage when there are multiple insured parties,” the report says. “When a renter has renter’s insurance, a homeowner/landlord has insurance and a Homeowner’s Association has insurance, a renter will often face a runaround in trying to get someone to take responsibility for remediation. The statute should clarify this so insurance companies cannot take advantage of ambiguity.”

The process should encourage HOAs, apartment associations and insurance companies to unite to create a remediation plan for future disasters, Jensen said. 

ECHO also learned renters lacked basic knowledge about their rights under Colorado’s habitability law. This is particularly true among people whose physical lease is destroyed in a fire or flood, the report says.

When some residents complained about smoke and ash damage, some were told they would no longer be tenants when their lease ended, or if they were living under a month-to-month rental agreement, they were given notice to terminate the lease and move out, according to the report.

“This is not clearly spelled out in the statute as retaliation, and it should be,” according to the report. ”We found it was not uncommon to hear of rent increases between 30 to 50% and landlords wanted to take advantage of those increases.” 

Many renters had to move out of Boulder County after the fire because rent prices increased so dramatically. 

360 Shawnee Lane is one of three adjacent lots for sale in the Sagamore neighborhood. Homes in the Superior neighborhood burned in the Marshall fire, and now lots left vacant are beginning to hit the market. Sagamore is appealing because of its location and because there is no HOA. (Steve Peterson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Many said they felt their local and state governments had not done enough to stop the price gouging, according to the report.  

Colorado law prohibits rent control, even after a local disaster, but ECHO leaders want the legislature to create an exception that would allow temporary rent stabilization following floods or wildfires, according to the report.

ECHO has continued encouraging lawmakers to examine the state’s housing laws for renters who survive a disaster. There have been no commitments from lawmakers yet, Jensen said. However, some lawmakers have said they’re working on other pieces of legislation that focus on aiding renters. 

“All you can do is share the information and hope somebody picks it up,” Jensen said. 

After the Marshall fire, the Colorado attorney general’s office said in January it was investigating reports that landlords were price gouging people after they were displaced by the fire. On Friday, Emily Wenger, a marketing and communications specialist, said the office would not comment on its price gouging investigations but that anyone who witnesses the trend should call 800-222-4444 to report it.

Tatiana Flowers

Tatiana Flowers is the equity and general assignment beat reporter for the Colorado Sun. She has covered crime and courts plus education and health in Colorado, Connecticut, Israel and Morocco. In her spare time, she enjoys skiing, Zumba, learning how to...