Boulder County fire victims face challenge finding temporary housing

Sara B. Hansen

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A burned vehicle sits in a Louisville neighborhood decimated by the Marshall Fire.Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

By Sara B. Hansen / NewsBreak Denver

(Boulder County, Colo.) Residents displaced by the Marshall Fire will need to get creative to find temporary housing.

The Dec. 30 fire destroyed an estimated 1,000 homes in Superior and Louisville, displacing about 30,000 residents and causing $825 million in property damage. It’s the worst fire in Colorado history.

State Farm, Colorado’s largest insurance provider, has received more than 1,200 home and auto claims, says Benjamin Palmer, a public affairs specialist for Colorado.

Carole Walker, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association, says the state’s insurance companies mobilized quickly. “Unfortunately, this is what insurance is for.”

Displaced Boulder County residents may find they have few temporary housing options available.

The metro Denver housing market has little inventory and finished 2021 with fewer than 1,500 homes and condos for sale. There are only 506 homes available to rent in Boulder County and 1,194 in metro Denver, according to a Jan. 5 Zillow search.

With so few homes available to buy or rent, those displaced will need to either consider temporarily relocating to communities farther away or consider extended-stay hotels.

Some may choose to buy a manufactured home or a recreational vehicle they can park on their property while rebuilding their homes, says Amy Bach, executive director of United Policyholders, a consumer advocacy group based in San Francisco.

Flexibility to meet the need

Bach says that insurance companies need to be flexible and give their policyholders the same amount to rebuild or buy another house or condo.

California passed a law to do so, and Bach has been working on getting similar legislation in Colorado. Her organization also has been working on getting a Colorado law that expands how long insurance covers temporary housing costs.

California law now gives people temporary housing assistance for 36 months. An effort to get 24 months of coverage in Colorado failed, although policyholders can buy 24 months of temporary rent insurance in their policies, Bach says.

She hopes insurers will be flexible and give displaced Boulder County residents extensions for circumstances beyond their control like snow, cold, lack of available builders, and supply chain issues.

“This is a struggle that a lot of people will be facing,” Bach says. “We want insurers to be realistic. There are a lot of reasons why someone can’t replace a totally destroyed home in 12 months.”

Bach said policies usually have a time limit and a total expense limit. Others have no time limit but set a maximum expenditure.

“There should be a lot of pressure on insurance companies to show some flexibility and remove some hurdles for policyholders,” Bach says. “It’s in their best interest to make concessions and give people extensions.”

Walker recommends policyholders stay in contact with their insurance companies. She anticipates insurers will be flexible. “We understand there are challenges. It’s harder to rebuild in the winter months, and people also will face issues due to COVID, labor and contractor shortages and supply shortages.”

Palmer says State Farm urges policyholders to use virtual claim handling to make the process easier. Using virtual claim handling, policyholders can submit photos, videos, and other claim documentation electronically. They also can choose to communicate with claims handlers via video calls.

Rebuilding takes time

Bach says the shortage of residential builders in Colorado also will cause delays in rebuilding. She predicts two things may happen in Boulder County.

First, there may be an effort to complete a group or neighborhood rebuild project. Something similar happened in San Diego after a wildfire. A developer offered residents a choice among seven plans with some customization options available.

Another option, some commercial builders may pivot to residential projects. Those companies typically have a good reputation in the community, Bach says.

And many companies may not have enough work because the pandemic delayed some hotel and office complex projects. In Denver, for example, only five major projects are expected to be completed in 2022, the Denver Post reports.

Walker says insurance companies want to help policyholders return to their homes. Most policies provide coverage for necessary upgrades to meet building code updates.

“We want to help give people a better home,” she says.

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Sara is the Denver news manager for NewsBreak. She's held editing roles at The Denver Post, The Des Moines Register, and The Fort Collins Coloradoan.

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