About a month after Sanford and Angela Smith moved into a 16th-floor condo in the high-rise Candlewyck Condominium complex in southeast Denver in 2021, they began smelling a foul, eggy odor.
Eventually, little black gnats were breeding and circulating around the unit. The couple had already been filing complaints with their landlord, the homeowners association and the company hired to manage the gated condo towers, which were built in the 1970s south of Fairmount Cemetery.
For nine months, the landlord, HOA and property manager dodged the couple’s complaints with each saying another was responsible for investigating and resolving the problem, the Smiths say.
Finally, in March 2022, the HOA and property manager hired Braconier, a commercial plumbing and mechanical services company, which found a plumbing vent pipe had broken in a wall that separates the kitchen and living room. The technician wrote in a report that sewer gas from all 16 floors of the building had been emitting into a wall in the couple’s home.
Damage to the pipe had likely occurred when a new roof was installed on the building, about a year before the Smiths began renting there, the Braconier technician wrote. The prolonged exposure to sewer gas, the couple said, has caused them to develop several new and severe health issues, which, in the most severe case, led Sanford Smith to be hospitalized for a week.
“The negligence and lack of care almost cost me my life,” he said.
Until this year, Denver residents with landlords who refused to remediate habitability issues have mostly been fighting their battles alone.
But since Jan. 1, the Denver Department of Excise and Licenses has been leading a new residential rental licensing program to improve basic housing standards across the city.
A new accountability tool
Tenant rights groups have organized for decades in big cities such as New York and Chicago to advocate for renters.
But Denver, a much younger and smaller city, has seen far fewer tenant organizing movements historically, and local housing advocates have said that’s why landlord and real estate lobbies have had so much power when shaping laws for renters in the Mile High City.
Around 37%-50% of Denver’s housing units are rentals, according to a report from Councilwoman Stacie Gilmore’s office. And as rent increases have dramatically outpaced wage growth over the last 20 years, many low- and moderate-income Denver residents have been at risk of being displaced. And some renters are afraid to report problems, according to the report.
City leaders say the new residential license program will help renters remain in their homes and that the new requirement will promote healthy and safe living conditions in Denver’s many rental units, the report says.
Owners who rent more than one unit at one address in Denver were required to get a license from the city by Jan. 1. People offering single units for rent must get a license by Jan. 1, 2024. Landlords must apply for a new license every four years, said Eric Escudero, director of communications for the Department of Excise and Licenses.
To get a license, a landlord must hire a third-party inspector, who meets certain qualifications listed on the city website, to look for problems such as a lack of running water, pests, black mold and broken heating systems.
If the property does not meet minimum housing standards, the landlord won’t receive a license until the problems are resolved.
If a landlord is licensed and the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment finds a habitability issue, the city can revoke or suspend the license until the landlord fixes the problem.
The department can issue fines for public health problems that are not resolved. The city can issue fines for landlords operating without a license.
A first offense can carry a $150 fine, rising to $500 for a second offense and $999 for a third. After that, the city has the option of issuing a $999 fine per day if the landlord continues to operate without a required license, Escudero said.
Fines from the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment start at $250 per violation and can rise to $500 per violation and then $999 per violation if the problems aren’t fixed. The department can issue a fine of as much as $5,000 if the landlord still does not comply.
When the law passed in 2021, the city council estimated about 50,000 properties would require a long-term rental license. By Monday afternoon, the city had issued 9,511 licenses covering about 137,000 units.
So far, about 20% of the landlords renting multiunit properties, who were required to get a license by Jan. 1, have complied, according to an estimate on the city’s website. That number is comparable to the months after the city began requiring licenses for short-term rentals in 2017. Today, that program has a 90% compliance rate, Escudero said.
Although the 20% compliance rate appears low, the city is happy with that estimate, he said. This is the largest kind of license the department has ever attempted to issue, he added.
“We anticipate we’ll issue more residential licenses than all other business licenses combined in Denver,” he said. “What we’re hoping happens because of this change is that we’ll see the largest improvement and increase in healthy standards for rental properties in the history of Denver.”
As of Monday evening, Denver had issued 1,611 notices of violations and fines this year to landlords who are renting units without a license. The initial enforcement effort was focused on properties that have had previous public health complaints, Escudero said.
Residents whose landlord refuses to fix habitability issues should call 311 to file a complaint, which will be investigated by the public health and environment department, he said.
Boulder is the only other city in Colorado that has a residential rental licensing requirement, he added.
So far, three units at the Candlewyck Condominiums are licensed, according to the excise and licenses department. If there are other individual units rented in the complex, those landlords have until Jan. 1, 2024 to become licensed.
It’s hard to find lawyers to take a tenant’s case
On March 18, the Smiths sued Candlewyck Condominium Association, Hammersmith Management, Worth Ross Management, Front Range Roofing Systems, Adolfson & Peterson and the condo’s owner, Jonathan A. Marks, and the Estate of Alan S. Marks in Denver District Court.
The lawsuit alleges the defendants negligently exposed the Smiths to sewer gas by failing to properly repair the roof, which led to the gas leak and caused them to have health problems. The Smiths are asking for $1.5 million from each of the seven defendants, or $10.5 million total, to compensate them for health bills and loss of wages.
It also claims the landlord and HOA failed to correct other problems including a broken toilet, a faulty air conditioner and a malfunctioning dishwasher.
David Hansen, an attorney representing Candlewyck Condominium Association and Hammersmith Management, said he would not comment on pending litigation. Amy Twohey, an attorney for Marks, said the same. All other defendants did not respond to at least three requests for comment by phone, email or through their organization’s online portal before publication.
The Smiths are representing themselves in court after they said they fired two attorneys and could not find another one to take their case.
The Smiths could have had trouble finding a lawyer for several reasons, said Zach Mountin, associate clinical professor and director of the civil practice clinic at University of Colorado Law School in Boulder.
Habitability cases are resource-intensive and can take a long time to resolve. A private attorney might not think the case is financially lucrative enough to take it on, especially if they feel it lacks merit, he said.
“There are a lot of nuances and technicalities to the warranty of habitability statute that make it unfortunately easy for tenants to not be able to prevail even though there may be legitimate concerns,” he said.
The plaintiffs may also have to find an expert witness who could testify that the couple’s health issues were linked to sewer gas exposure, which could be difficult and expensive, Mountin said.
“The other wrinkle in this case is they’re in a condo, so there’s multiple parties involved,” he said. “No matter what, it’s the landlord who ensures the home is habitable, and yet there may have been some things that were out of (his) direct control. Generally, in a condo, the homeowner is responsible for the interior of the unit and everything outside will fall to the HOA and management company that governs the building. That complicates this case, potentially, and might make it harder to pursue.”
The research about the health impacts of sewer gas are also scant, said Mike Van Dyke, associate professor and interim chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.
There is no way to know how much sewer gas the Smiths were exposed to. Braconier did not measure the level of sewer gas emitting into the home at the time of repairs.
Typically, the instruments used to test sewer gas are fairly specialized, Van Dyke said. For example, fire departments have meters that test for hydrogen sulfide but their instruments are usually geared toward measuring high levels of sewer gas, he said.
The Smiths were likely exposed to a low level of hydrogen sulfide, Van Dyke said, because even at a low level, the eggy-smelling sewer gas is intolerable.
Data on chronic low level exposure is inadequate, he said. However, 20 parts per million is the limit in occupational settings and at 100 ppm, there are immediate dangers to a person’s health, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It is common to have plumbing issues that would lead to low-level sewer gas exposure, he said.
Low-level exposure can cause headaches, poor memory, fatigue, balance problems and irritation to the eyes, nose or throat. At very high levels, the gas can cause nausea, headaches, sleeplessness, loss of appetite, unconsciousness, respiratory tract irritation and even death, according to a spokeswoman at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s toxicology and environmental epidemiology office.
Since the exposure, Sanford Smith said he has been hospitalized for severe lung failure, which is not associated with sewer gas exposure. He also has had nosebleeds and coughed up blood. He has also lost six teeth and experienced hearing loss, which are also not considered symptoms of sewer gas exposure.
Angela Smith said she has vertigo and has also had nausea, blood pressure changes, anemia, blurred vision, chest pain and heartburn, according to court records she shared with The Colorado Sun.
Sanford Smith’s daughter-in-law Khalia Maxwell said she was admitted to Denver Health for vision problems and vomiting after she was exposed and that her 6-month-old daughter went to the same facility and learned she had an upper respiratory infection, Maxwell said.
A final eviction
In June 2022, three months after the broken pipe was found in their home, landlord Alan Marks reduced the Smiths’ rent by half to compensate them for the problem. Under the agreement they were to pay $1,025 per month from June 2022 to November 2022, and then $1,525 per month from December 2022 until May, when the month-to-month lease agreement ended.
Alan Marks died on July 3, 2022.
The Smiths stopped paying rent in August 2022, according to court records.
In mid-May, Jonathan Marks, acting as the personal representative for his father’s estate, sent the Smiths a legal demand that they pay rent or leave. The couple owed more than $12,000 in back rent at that point, the court records show.
Jonathan Marks said in court that he had no plans to be a landlord and that it was his intention to sell the condo as part of settling his father’s estate.
By the end of the hearing, Judge Martin F. Egelhoff granted the eviction.
On Labor Day, a sheriff’s deputy showed up to the Smiths’ home and said they had to leave within 10 days. On Sept. 13, they were moving the last of their belongings out of the condo.
Now, they’re sleeping in their car with their dog, at a Walmart parking lot, Sanford Smith said Monday morning.
He got into a car accident in September 2022 and said he could longer work. The Smiths then applied for rental assistance from the Community Economic Defense Project. But Jonathan Marks would only accept the payments if the Smiths agreed to move out and drop the lawsuit against him, Sanford Smith said.
Sanford Smith said the eviction was an abuse of power and that Jonathan Marks retaliated by sending paperwork to the couple threatening an eviction each time they asked him to make repairs in the condo.
The Smiths wish they had a lawyer, but became frustrated when the attorneys they hired took too long to ask them for documents, said the case had no merit, and appeared intimidated because Jonathan Marks works at a powerful law firm, they said.
Jonathan Marks is an executive compensation and employee benefits attorney who works at a law firm that specializes in, among other things, defending environmental toxic tort cases involving personal injury, medical monitoring and property damage claims, according to the law firm’s website.
“So he knows more about toxic exposure than we do,” Sanford Smith said.
“I don’t know how any reasonable person could think that a person in 16 floors worth of sewer gas for nine months would not be affected,” he said. “But we’re dealing with that kind of nonconsciousness.”