The ranch house in Louisville that Emily Teater and her family of five rented before the Marshall fire wasn’t their dream home, but it was solid, had a big yard and, most importantly, it wasn’t destroyed by fire, smoke or wind .
It was one of the few houses on their street to survive, although it needed to be cleaned top-to-bottom because of ash and soot. They considered moving because the family felt sad every time they drove past their neighbors’ burned homes. Still, they decided to stay.
“We couldn’t find another rental,” Teater said. “They were going too fast and they’re expensive. But we have a solid house and we can get it clean. Let’s just stay in the area and deal with the sadness.”
Then last week the family’s landlord, with little explanation, sent notice to terminate their lease when it expires in March. The landlord gave them the option to pay month-to-month with a 10% increase through May.
“We were shocked,” Teater said. “We absolutely were shocked.”
Now, the Teater family will join the hundreds of other families searching for housing in an area that already had a tight market before the Marshall fire destroyed 1,084 homes and damaged another 149 in Louisville, Superior and parts of unincorporated Boulder County on Dec. 30.
It’s too early to know how much the Marshall fire has impacted housing costs because it’s been less than a month since the 6,000-acre wildfire’s destruction, but those who are searching for housing say it is more expensive than ever.
The most recent data shows vacancy rates rose slightly for all of Metro Denver to 4.3% in the last quarter of 2021 from 3.8% in the previous quarter, according to the Apartment Association of Metro Denver. But that’s typical for the last three months of the year, and that 3.8% was the tightest rental market the metro area has seen, said Drew Hamrick, the association’s senior vice president of government affairs.
Already, metro-area rents averaged $1,873 per month, up 14.8% over the last year, according to data from Zillow. Add more than 1,000 new families looking for places to live, and those averages will rise, experts said. Many of those of those families were homeowners who now have returned — at least temporarily — to the rental market.
“If there’s not enough vacancy rents are going to go up because that’s what the market is going to do,” Hamrick said.
Anecdotally, the market is commanding even higher prices for the housing that is available, said Amanda DiVito Parle, a Realtor with Re/Max and co-creator of a Marshall Fire Housing Needs and Availability Facebook page.
She recently listed a four-bedroom, four-bathroom Arvada house for $850,000. She had 38 showings and five offers, and the sellers ultimately sold it for $55,000 above the asking price to Marshall fire victims, she said.
And this week she noticed a real estate listing for a burned lot in Superior’s Sagamore neighborhood priced at $350,000. And that’s before fire debris is cleared in a subdivision that was completely destroyed.
“Inventory is remarkably low and prices are going up,” DiVito Parle said. “And anything near the fire is going to go up because of the shortage.”
After the fire, the apartment association identified more than 2,000 available rental units in the Denver area, Hamrick said. The rental market has rooms for the fire victims, but it will mean many families will need to move away from Superior and Louisville to find affordable places to live.
“We’re presuming some people are just going to have to commute from this,” he said.
But families want to stay near their jobs, children’s schools and social circles.
The Teaters wanted to stay in their rental home for multiple reasons. They want their kids enrolled in the same school and playing on the same sports teams. The grownups enjoy their social circle. And the rental had a backyard shed that made the perfect workshop for Teater’s photography business.
“We are hopeful there will be some options out there, but we are also terrified of what happens if we put five people in an apartment,” Teater said. “I don’t want to move every year. That’s what we were trying to avoid.
“It’s part of the American dream to build a life around your little community. I just hope things turn around. I’m afraid this area is going to start pricing out families like us. We’re very middle-of-the-road-type people and if this area loses that, it would be terrible to see what happens to this community.”
Things may get worse before they get better.
On Thursday, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser warned rental companies that his office would be watching for price-gouging in connection with the fire. He sent letters to Airbnb, Zillow, Vrbo and REColorado after receiving an unspecified number of reports of landlords who excessively raised rent after the fire. He asked those website hosting companies to enforce fair practices among those who use their platforms to advertise vacancies.
Distinguishing price gouging from fair market value may be tricky.
Colorado law prohibits price gouging during a crisis such as a wildfire or flood, but there’s no formula for determining what that is.
Instead, the attorney general’s staff will have to determine the difference between landlords taking advantage of vulnerable people and what is expected when demand exceeds supply. His staff will watch current market averages and look for people who are charging much more than everyone else, he said.
“We have to be looking at the market conditions at the time so we can make a determination the seller is acting in an abusive way to take advantage of somebody,” Weiser said. “When someone decides I can take advantage of you right here and right now and charge you far outside market price that is taking advantage of a vulnerable person.”
DiVito Parle expects average rental prices to at least triple in Boulder County, based on what happened in Grand County after the East Troublesome fire in 2020.
“This is what free markets look like when you have 1,000 houses gone and 1,000 families displaced,” she said.