Displaced fire victims crowding tight rental market

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As evacuation orders were lifted and families went home last week, those who lost their houses to the Waldo Canyon fire started the hunt for new places to live.

With almost 350 homes burned to the ground and countless others damaged, the rush to find housing has put a crunch on the already-tight local rental market.

The average metro-area vacancy rate in the second quarter of 2012 was 6.38 percent, according to the Apartment Insights survey released Tuesday. It was down to 4.24 percent on the city’s west side, where most of those who lost their homes want to live.

“We’ve just been bombarded,” said Teresa Jackson, who owns and operates real estate and property management firm JaxSun Properties. “We don’t have anything left.”

She says she’s been fielding more calls from families and their Realtors in the past week than ever before.

“If we had something that was supposed to be ready in two or three weeks, we’re doing everything we can to get it ready now,” Jackson said.

Jackson, her staff and contractors have been getting places cleaned up and ready to go at record pace. And she still can’t keep up.

As of Monday this week, she had a single listing on the Westside, where she does most of her business. It was a 700-square-foot bungalow in Manitou Springs.

“And 200 of that is basement,” she said. “Obviously, they [fire victims] want to be able to find something that’s going to accommodate them and they want to be able to live a somewhat normal life.”

Jackson has no doubt that little bungalow will rent quickly, even if a fire victim doesn’t snap it up.

“Even before this happened, things didn’t last,” she said. “I had a 2,500-square-foot house I put on the market for $1,700 a month and it was gone in a couple days. And that was before.”

Getting the right place

“This has created a huge demand for rentals — which we just don’t have,” said Joe Clement, broker owner of Re/Max Properties. “We don’t have the rental inventory in this town to take care of 350-plus people.”

That issue is compounded by the fact that most of the displaced people are coming from larger homes, many have families and many have pets.

“Families with two dogs and a cat — they want a yard, a house,” Clement said.

It’s not easy to find rental housing that allows pets or has the kind of space people had.

Kevin Meisse, who manages Apartments Etc., says he’s helped several people looking for housing and it’s been hard to find them exactly what they want. The Apartment Association of Southern Colorado designated Apartments Etc. as the connection between its member properties and fire victims.

Meisse said he had a couple come in who bought their home several years ago.

“Their house payment was $800 and they were looking for a three-bedroom for that,” Miesse said. “Most people, if they want something comparable to what they had, will have to spend more.”

A two-bedroom apartment, especially on the northwest end of town, where Miesse said most evacuees wanted to live, runs between the low $900s and $1,100 a month.

Homeowners insurance typically covers the cost of a rental, but every policy is different and so are the limits on what insurers will pay for rental housing.

Families who lost their houses and have good relationships with their Realtors turn to their agents, Jackson said. She’s been getting calls from Realtors she’s never heard from before. They don’t work with rentals and they’re trying to help their clients find something temporary.

Bobbie Rupp, a Realtor with Re/Max Properties, has six clients in the Mountain Shadows neighborhood. Three of them are dealing with smoke damage and minor repairs. The other three lost their homes. She’s been trying to help them find something.

“A lot of the people who have been burned out of their homes have children,” she said. “They’re looking for homes within the same school boundaries.”

That’s hard when there wasn’t a lot of rental inventory in the area to begin with, she said.

“What we’re seeing is people fighting over the properties,” she said.

Filling the gap

To make up for the rental shortage, Rupp and other agents have been reaching out to sellers they represent to see if they would be willing to rent their vacant properties to fire victims.

Rupp said she had two clients agree. One of the houses, which is in the same school boundaries, rented immediately.

“The other is a little farther out of the area,” Rupp said. “A lot of people are willing to wait until the right thing comes up.”

Laura Russmann, executive director of the Apartment Association of Southern Colorado, says apartment owners also have been willing to work out special deals to help those who lost homes.

“With low vacancy rates, I was really surprised at what properties were willing to do,” she said.

Some have reduced or waived move-in fees and agreed to month-to-month leases without charging extra rent, waived pet rent and offered free or reduced first month’s rent.

Jackson says she has some property owners, who didn’t want to allow pets, have agreed to let fire victims move pets in with them. Some have even pulled furniture out of storage and put it in their rental houses for fire victims.

With all of the good deals and special offers available to fire victims, Meisse said he was disappointed but not surprised by the number of scammers who came through his office claiming to be fire victims and needing a place to rent.

He said at least a dozen people have tried to claim they lived in Mountain Shadows, but couldn’t produce an address. The Red Cross was issuing cards with Apartments Etc. information on them to fire victims, which is one indicator to staff that the person is legitimate.