'Our life is pretty much upside down': Marshall Fire homeowners struggle to find new housing nearby
After the Marshall Fire roared through Louisville and Superior on a windy morning in December, homeowners began the difficult task of finding a new place to live. Many continue to be confronted with high prices and low inventory as they try to piece their lives back together.
“So yeah, this whole situation, our life is pretty much upside down,” said Eva Redpath, who lost her Louisville home.
Redpath starts her weekday mornings at a coffee shop in downtown Louisville; when the public library opens, she goes over there to deal with insurance and look for long-term housing.
She spends weekdays in town until she picks her kids up from school and drives back to Longmont, where her family has been living since their house burned down. Redpath has had to take a few months off from her accounting job to make it all work.
“So I don't even drive back until, you know, 4 or 5 in the evening. It used to be a five-minute commute to drop my kids off,” Redpath said.
Redpath wept while describing the full impact of the fire on her family. Her husband and 8-year-old son evacuated in their truck, wind and ash whipping around while Redpath picked up her daughter in town. Her kids often talk about what they lost that day: toys, favorite books. Her son recently drew a bird with tears streaming down its face.
Redpath craves the stability her family had in Louisville; she is set on staying.
“So that it could be an easier transition for my kids dropping them off from school. I could still go back to work a normal schedule,” she said.
‘There was already a major shortage of homes’
Like many others, Redpath is running up against high housing prices and few options. She says her insurance company offered a couple of apartments but they were all too expensive, too far away, or too short-term.
“They either get back to you with a really high price or there's five people ahead of you,” Redpath said of the landlords she has called directly.
Out of the 2,833 survivors who have applied for assistance since the fire, around 1,000 reported to the federal government that they had been re-housed – either back in their homes or in a long-term rental. A small number were ‘emergent,’ meaning they have been homeless or living somewhere like a house of worship or shelter. Over half were in short-term housing, staying with friends, at a hotel, or in a temporary rental.
In January, Colorado’s attorney general warned of price gouging, sending a letter to major rental companies like Airbnb and Zillow, asking them to prevent it.
“The less impact to our regular lifestyle is the best. But looking for a home at a reasonable price is almost impossible right now,” Redpath said.
For fire victims, getting rehoused is a multi-step process. Those who want to rebuild need to first find a long-term rental. Those who want to buy a new home are facing a tight real estate market in Boulder County. In January, the average sales price was over $1 million. That same month, only 156 new homes came on the market.
“There was already a major shortage of homes,” said Shannon Schliep, a local real estate agent who started the ‘Marshall Fire Housing Needs’ Facebook page. “And you know, you have thousands of people who just became displaced needing replacement homes and we just don't have the vacancies.”
Boulder County is offering some financial assistance, as is the federal government. A few organizations aggregate available units and many fire victims are getting rehoused through word of mouth. But part of the problem is that most of the destroyed properties were single family homes. Many of the available rental units are too small.
“We've had a lot of people that have offered basements and bedrooms and shared spaces and things like that, which just isn't ideal for people with families and dogs and cats. You know, people really need their own space while they're recovering,” Schliep said.
Less than half of the 358 properties currently listed by the Boulder Area Rental Housing Association (BARHA) are homes with two or more bedrooms.
But Todd Ulrich, BARHA’s board president, emphasizes that the rental market has been improving since the fire and is optimistic about supply in the coming months. First, he believes some fire-impacted homeowners will begin moving back into their homes, freeing up wherever they had been living. Then, there is the usual summer cycle.
“Our market is so heavily influenced by the school year,” Ulrich said. “So as we approach summer, there will be quite a bit more available because leases will be ending and people have secured what's next and they'll be moving out.”
As time goes on, fire victims find new housing
Eva Redpath and her family recently moved into a basement-level, two-bedroom temporary rental in Louisville while they continue to search for something long-term.
Sometimes, she and her son drive down their old street to look at their property and “get the grief out.”
In the past, families in this neighborhood would hold block parties and barbecues. Redpath’s kids loved the bike path, nearby lake and recreation center. Now, all around, homes are burnt down to their innards; pipes, foundations and air conditioners are strewn across destroyed properties. ‘We will return’ is scrawled across a piece of plywood in orange spray paint.
Redpath and her family miss the neighborhood desperately, but she is starting to feel unsure about rebuilding. No set time frame for the process exists yet; the county is still working on getting the debris removal process started on private properties. For these reasons, finding the right long-term housing is important.
“I wanted to, you know, come back into a strong community with friends around it,” Redpath said. “But this might take longer than five years, even at this point, in my opinion, because it's such a huge area. I don't think it's ever going to be the same.”