In the early hours of July 22, 2018, an arsonist set fire to Building E of the Westbury Apartments in Westminster, CO. The fire spread fast, forcing several residents to jump from second and third story balconies. Two people died, 14 were injured, and all 140 residents were displaced. Now, people are asking questions: How could this happen? Why was there no sprinkler system? Was the building up to code and if not, why?
The answers are more complicated than you might think. In Colorado, landlords or management companies may upgrade a building’s fire defenses if they choose, but they have no obligation to make an older building conform to modern standards. The Westbury Apartments were built in 1974, when fire sprinklers were not mandatory for new construction.
Colorado’s Warranty of Habitability
However, residents may still have some recourse. According to Colorado’s Warranty of Habitability, property owners are obligated to provide their tenants with a safe place to live. The warranty can be broken in many ways, including if a residence is materially dangerous to the tenant’s life, health, or safety.
Was the building safe?
Much depends on the answer. Although sprinklers may not have been required, the building should have conformed to 1970s standards. The 1970 Uniform Building code requires one-hour fire-resistive compartments for each apartment. The speed of the fire and its lateral travel pattern suggest these protections may not have been in place.
Investigations are ongoing. While we wait for results, let’s not forget the devastation caused by this fire. If the building was unsafe, victims deserve justice.
Which brings us back to the Warranty of Habitability. Many are saying the legislation needs an upgrade. Right now, a building is legally “habitable” if it has functioning electricity, heating, roofing, walls, windows and doors, is vermin-free, and landlords respond to concerns within a “reasonable” time. That sounds fine until you consider the case of, say, a broken refrigerator. After five days of take-out and granola bars, you may find your definition of “habitable” and “reasonable” are different than your landlord’s. What if the refrigerator stays broken for weeks? Months? Can you break your lease without repercussions?
Right now? Not really.
However, on May 3, 2018, the House passed HB 18-1397 to increase protections for renters, including defining the length of time a landlord has to respond to concerns, adding provisions for mold, alternative housing, and protections against retaliation. But then the bill went to the Senate Committee on State, Veterans, and Military Affairs. Where it sits. Indefinitely.
Is it time for a change?
Right now, management companies have no legal obligation to improve a refrigerator, or a pipe, or a fire safely system. But the law is an ever-evolving creature. Maybe it’s time to infuse the Warranty of Habitability with some legal gamma waves.
Because the victims of the Westbury fire are people just like you and me. We all need a safe place to call home.
Article by Molly Fuscher