Jan. 29—It's been a little more than three months since a fire burned through the Whittier Place Condominiums during the early hours of Oct. 19.
Residents continue to face fallout from it. Most have not been able to physically return to the complex at 23rd and Pearl streets to retrieve their belongings. Those in units that were affected or destroyed were required to pay ServPro, a commercial fire and water cleanup and restoration services company, to access the space for them.
The Whittier Place Condominiums Homeowners' Association barred tenants from entering the building after consulting with a structural engineer and other professionals who deemed it unsafe for entry. The HOA also hired ServPro, with a representative confirming it was the sole company that submitted a bid in a bidding process.
But a number of tenants say their post-fire struggles do not stop there. With no residents currently living in the condos, a number of break-ins have been reported, despite a contracted security team hired by the HOA that is on site 24/7. Boulder Police Department spokesperson Dionne Waugh confirmed that the department has taken three burglary reports. All remain under investigation.
Elif Kuzu and her family are among those who have reported items stolen. They have yet to return to the complex to retrieve any of their belongings, though ServPro did enter earlier this week to document footage that Kuzu says confirms her suspicions about her personal belongings being stolen. Among other things, she said her jewelry was taken, along with two bikes on the porch of the second story condominium she rents.
Additionally, Kuzu said one of her credit cards that had been in her condominium was used in late December. The bank told her it was physically scanned in Denver so it's not just her information that was stolen.
And aside from that, Kuzu, who did not have renter's insurance, is frustrated by the fact that in the midst of so much loss, she's now required to front the cost of ServPro's services if she wants to see her belongings again. ServPro did not respond to a question about the service costs, but others involved said it cost several hundred dollars with the number increasing for additional boxes.
Police investigation continues
But Suzanne Leff, general counsel for the Whittier Place Condominiums HOA, has a different perspective on decisions regarding reentry made by the association board she's represented since before the fire happened.
The volunteer HOA board has been making challenging decisions without any institutional backing, she noted.
"The people who are making the decisions are directly impacted by this situation, and they're making decisions in consultation with professionals," Leff said.
Among other things, the HOA obtained a report from a structural engineer.
According to earlier Camera reporting, Boulder police were on patrol downtown and were the first to respond to the fire about 3:35 a.m. Oct. 19. They arrived two minutes after the first call to dispatch had been received.
Of the 81 total units, police said they were able to access more than 60. But because of the intensity of smoke and flames, they were unable to reach the others.
Residents in all units were forced to flee the fire but none were injured. The condominiums are spread across six buildings and are a mix of owner-owned as well as long- and short-term rentals. Most structures partially collapsed in the fire, the city stated in a release.
The investigation is ongoing, according to Boulder Fire-Rescue spokesperson Marya Washburn. While the fire department's portion of the investigation, which generally determines cause and the fire's origin, is complete, the police department is continuing its investigative work.
"Because it's such a big fire, there are many angles they have to investigate," she said.
A report will be released once the investigation has concluded, though Washburn noted it's often hard to determine exactly what happened, and it's possible the report won't be a groundbreaking one. She said both components of the investigation are generally released concurrently and that could happen as soon as next week.
Most of property structurally unsafe to enter
In the aftermath of a fire such as this one, conditions are often unsafe. Beyond the fire damage, smoke and soot can be toxic, according to information from ServPro.
The safety concern is a big reason for the HOA's ultimate decision to prohibit individual tenants from entering their condominiums.
"There are big risks associated with even accessing the structurally sound units," Leff said. "It doesn't mean they're safe. They've been damaged by fire and water. It's not a space for people to just wander."
Boulder Fire Marshal David Lowrey said it's not up to the fire department to decide whether people can go inside the building now that it's been turned over to the HOA. Whether people are allowed inside is "strictly their business," he said.
The fire marshal confirmed that the fire severely damaged the condominiums.
"Structurally most of the building is unsafe to go in, whether it's a collapse from you walking on flooring or it's a collapse from the ceiling that could fall on you," Lowrey said.
According to a letter from the HOA that was sent to condominium owners, services performed by ServPro will be directly billed to the owner of the unit or their insurance company.
ServPro is the sole contractor with authorization to access the site for the purpose of recovering personal contents, the letter states. No individual owners or residents or privately hired contractors are permitted on site.
"This approach helps to ensure the safety of people and property and minimize liability," the letter states.
Kuzu suggested a waiver. She said she's OK with accepting the liability in order to have access to her condominium.
But Leff said that's insufficient for protecting safety.
"It's not a safe space, so signing off on a piece of paper has not been found to be an acceptable way to get access to property," she said.
Because of her concerns, Kuzu obtained legal advice from Clinton Burke of Boulder's Flat Creek Law PLLC. He said the state protects Kuzu's right to her family's personal belongings.
"We're just negotiating in good faith to try to reach a fair compromise," Burke said. "The investigation is ongoing and the potential for litigation is not off the table."
"I'm really just trying to help Elif get her stuff back and rebuild her life back," he added.
Nevin Fowler is another former tenant of the Whittier Place condominiums who was displaced by the fire.
"We still have things in there," Fowler said. "People's lives and personal possessions and heirlooms are still in the building. Even if they have insurance, you can't replace those things easily."
Tenant Richard Light echoed this sentiment. Much of the communication has been to the owners, so renters often feel left in the dark.
"All the information has to be filtered through the owners of the condos," he said. "And if the owner isn't spending a lot of time pressuring the HOA for information, you get virtually zero information."
Light said he has a "significant amount of things" in his condo that are accessible and retrievable and worries it will all be sent to the landfill when the building is demolished.
Ultimately, Fowler feels fortunate that he's a graduate student at the University of Colorado Boulder because the school stepped in and helped with housing. He now lives with his girlfriend in graduate and family housing on campus and intends to stay there.
"It kind of feels like home now," he said. "It feels like a community, which is good."
'We should not be suffering'
At the end of the day, although Kuzu argues she shouldn't have to pay a contractor to access her belongings, her decision to obtain legal counsel and push back on her inability to access her apartment is about more than that.
"If it's not the tenants' fault, you should not make the tenants pay," Kuzu said. "We are not at fault, and we should not be suffering from this whole circumstance with everything else going on."
"I'm human. You're human," she added, speaking of all those involved. "We have to deal with this in a human way."
From Leff's perspective, it's a failure of the system. She referenced the outpouring of support for those affected by the recent Marshall Fire in eastern Boulder County, now the most destructive in state history.
In the aftermath of the Whittier Place fire, GoFundMe campaigns for tenants, including two for Fowler and his girlfriend, were set up.
The American Red Cross responded to the fire, as the organization does for every house fire when requested, Boulder County Emergency Management Coordinator Joycelyn Fankhouser said.
The Red Cross provided support, which included immediate cash assistance to help people pay for a hotel and personal items.
Boulder County's Housing and Human Services department's housing help line was provided to Whittier Place residents and Deacon's Closet, a free clothing bank, contributed clothing. Additionally, Fankhouser said the Salvation Army Thrift Store in Boulder hosted two shopping weekends where residents could peruse donated items.
Still, aside from some of this initial support, Leff argued that there hasn't been much assistance for those affected by the Whittier Place condo fire.
"This is a space where 81 homes were damaged or destroyed," Leff said. "Everybody got out and nobody died. That's huge. There's a lot to really be thankful for, including all those first responders."