Displaced by Marshall fire, thousands scramble to find homes in tight Denver metro housing market

Michael and Deanne Pickel are living in a Residence Inn in Broomfield.

Deborah Mordecai has been sleeping on her daughter’s couch. Her 24-year-old son is staying at a friend’s house.

Cousins welcomed Gladys Forshee into their Loveland home.

And Patrick Kilbride has a niece to thank for allowing him to stay at her house in Ken Caryl.

All were displaced on Thursday when the Marshall Fire swept through Superior and Louisville, destroying more than 900 homes and displacing thousands of people. Now, the Pickels, Mordecai, Forshee and Kilbride are among the thousands searching for housing while they figure out how — or if — they will rebuild their homes.

Forshee, 80, planned to look at a condominium on Monday afternoon. If that doesn’t work out, “I don’t know,” she said about her future housing. She lost a house that her family has owned in Old Town Superior for more than 50 years, and she doesn’t plan to rebuild it.

The depth of the need is profound.

Some 991 structures were destroyed by the fire and another 127 were damaged, the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office reported over the weekend. In some cases, like Superior’s Sagamore subdivision, entire neighborhoods were burned away. Officials have not said exactly how many people the destruction displaced but government agencies and a real estate organization are mobilizing as quickly as they can to fill the breach in a community where housing already is in short supply.

Amanda DiVito Parle and Shannon Schliep launched the Marshall Fire Housing Needs and Availability Facebook page on Friday morning. The two friends are both Realtors with ReMax Alliance; Parle is based in Arvada and Schliep in Aurora. 

The page is set up to be a meeting place for people with immediate housing needs because of the fire and people with space available. By Monday afternoon, the page had more than 1,600 members. Among the dozens of posts were many offering spaces at no charge.

The page was inspired by 2020’s historic East Troublesome Fire. Schliep’s in-laws and several friends lost their homes in Grand Lake to that disaster. More than a year later, Schliep says she only knows two people who have been able to rebuild and move back into the community. She knows some Marshall fire evacuees are facing a multi-year process. 

“One of the big things with the recovery up there was trying to help people get into long-term housing,” Schliep said. “Down here, especially with the market the way it is and the limited inventory we have it’s going to be really, really tough for people to find more permanent housing.” 

A week ago, on Dec. 27, there were just 1,950 single-family homes and 913 condos listed for sale in the entire Denver metro area, Parle said. That was everything available from Longmont in the north to Castle Rock in the south and Evergreen in the west to Parker in the east. 

As of Monday, those numbers had dwindled to 1,576 homes and 571 condos available on the region’s multiple listing service. The rental and for-sale housing markets could get even more strained, Parle said. 

“I think initially you’re going to see rents skyrocket and that’s just short-term rents,” she said. “I think you’re just going to see a real desperation on the part of homebuyers.” 

On Monday hundreds of people streamed into an office complex in Lafayette to visit the Boulder County Disaster Assistance Center and a FEMA disaster recovery center. Almost every major home insurer also set up tents and mobile offices in the complex parking lot. People filed insurance claims and registered for federal assistance while also picking up food, pet supplies, COVID test kits and other necessities.

As of Sunday night, more than 450 people had filed for FEMA assistance, said Jon Huss, deputy federal coordinating officer for the Marshall fire. He encouraged everyone affected by the fire to register for FEMA assistance even if they were unsure of their needs.

“There’s going to be a great need for housing in this area,” Huss said.

Federal, state and local authorities are still figuring out what exactly will be done to ease the housing crunch, he said. When asked whether FEMA trailers such as those used after Hurricane Katrina will be deployed, Huss said it was too early to know whether that would be “an appropriate tool in this community.”

FEMA offers up to $37,000 per household to help people with repairs and rental assistance, he said.

The U.S. Small Business Administration offers disaster loans to businesses and individuals, said Rick Tillery, an agency spokesman. Those loans are available to homeowners and renters who need to replace real estate and personal property, including cars, he said.

The Colorado Apartment Association stood up a rental housing directory for fire victims over the weekend. Available at caahq.org/available-apartments-for-displaced-families, the directory has pages of results all of which are ready for people to move in immediately, according to a news release Saturday. 

“Our rental housing market is tight, and it may be difficult for displaced residents to find housing quickly,” Drew Hamrick, the association’s general counsel, said in a statement. “We’re hoping (this directory) can make a big difference for the Marshall Fire’s victims, helping them identify units in their communities available today.”

The results on the website span the metro area. The Boulder Area Rental Housing Association has its own website with housing available closer to the burn zone. Those listings are online at barhaonline.org/available-properties-for-displaced-tenants. The Boulder association has been working with local real estate agents and groups including the Red Cross, the University of Colorado Boulder and the Boulder Chamber of commerce to get the word out to people in need, according to Saturday’s new release. 

The Pickels fled so fast on Thursday that they left with only the clothes on their backs. On Monday, Michael Pickel’s donated blue jeans were being cinched around his waist with a bungee cord as he met with Allstate representatives at the FEMA center.

The night they evacuated the couple found a room at a Residence Inn in Denver. But they wanted to be closer to Michael Pickel’s job at a Walmart so they moved to a Residence Inn in Broomfield.

For now, insurance will cover the expense. But Deanne Pickel said she knows it is not a long-term solution — for them or for Allstate. Their insurance policy covers up to 24 months of temporary housing, she said.

“They said they would help us try to find something semi-close to our work,” Michael Pickel said. But he worried that “semi-close” would be miles away, forcing a long commute while they rebuild their home in Old Town Superior.

“We hope we don’t end up in Denver,” Deanne Pickel said with a sense of dread.

The Colorado Association of Realtors Foundation is raising money that can be used to ease the burdens on fire victims, said Amy McDermott, the charity’s executive director. The foundation plans to provide between $25,000 and $50,000 from its endowment fund and combine that with money raised from real estate agents, brokerages, other individuals and businesses and the broader Colorado Association of Realtors to provide multiple avenues of help.

Some of the money will be packaged into grants for organizations on the ground helping victims with housing and some will go directly to people who lost their homes to fund things like mortgage and rental assistance, McDermott said. She expects to provide more details about the application process for that support at coloradorealtors.com/about-car/foundation by the end of the week.

“Everything is mobilizing quite quickly, which is fantastic,” McDermott said.  

Mordecai showed pictures of her home on her cell. It is still standing while her neighbor’s houses are pits of ash and burned metal.

“I’m so blessed,” she said.

Although the house has been declared structurally sound and she and her 24-year-old son have been able to go inside to retrieve belongings, it is uninhabitable because of the ash, smoke and water damage. The house also does not have electricity or water.

She said almost every house that was left intact has ash inside and smells like smoke. Her daughter’s Louisville townhome is livable but there is a thin film of ash throughout, she said.

“There’s not a person you’re going to talk to that doesn’t have that,” Mordecai said.

Her insurance company will pay for temporary housing until an adjustor and a fire remediation specialist figure out what it will take to make it safe to live in.

She was looking for a hotel room for Monday night because sleeping on couches already was becoming tiresome. She was picking up her son from a friend’s because “We need to decompress their household. It’s a little too much.”

Kilbride found a spare room at a niece’s house in Ken Caryl. But now his commute to work at McGuckin Hardware in Boulder is more than 70 miles roundtrip. He plans to stay with friends in Boulder until he finds a more long-term solution as he waits to rebuild. But he isn’t sure what that will be.

As for his home in Old Town Superior, Kilbride is thinking he might sell one of the two lots he owns and build a tiny house. Before the fire, he lived in a 1,400 square foot house with his dog, Roscoe, and cat, Dusty. Both pets perished in the fire.

“You never get enough money back from these people to rebuild,” he said. “You usually downgrade, you know?”

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