We have a developing crisis in a segment of the local small-business community, and it has nothing to do with the region’s economy, our endless political skirmishes or consumer behavior.
But it’s a direct result of the disastrous fires that struck El Paso County the past two summers, Waldo Canyon in 2012 and Black Forest in 2013.
At the time, after both of those catastrophic events, there was some low-key concern about whether local homeowners unaffected by the fires might be impacted someday — in the form of higher insurance rates.
That impact has arrived as a virtual tsunami, created by the national-level insurance companies that for years have had thousands of clients in the Colorado Springs area.
The focus appears to be on residents of Manitou Springs, the Lower Ute Pass and probably Westside neighborhoods closest to the mountains. And it’s creating a new, very real and very concerned set of indirect fire victims — not just homeowners, but also insurance agents.
I know, because our household is among those affected.
We live in the lower end of Crystal Hills, on the east edge of Manitou Springs, nowhere close to what would be considered a high-risk area. In fact, the post-Waldo Canyon maps showing areas of the Westside and Manitou most vulnerable to future fires do not include our neighborhood as being inside any “red zone” boundaries. Yes, we might have a few mitigation needs (as would almost any property in Manitou), but not enough to be a big problem.
We also were lulled by the fact that we have been good customers of Allstate for 13 years, insuring our homes and multiple cars, with no claims. So when a letter came earlier this summer, saying an Allstate representative would be checking our home from the outside and then sending us a report, we didn’t panic. In late August, another letter arrived, saying we should call our agent and have a meeting.
That’s when we found out what many others like us have been learning: Our past history as reliable customers, living outside high-danger areas, means nothing. Allstate and other companies, such as American Family, are making crazy demands on customers, basically talking about totally clear-cutting everything within 30 feet of the house, and almost everything within 100 feet.
It doesn’t matter if, as with us, that includes neighbors’ property. If they don’t comply, we’re canceled, and that letter came early this month. Our agent, as much of a victim as her customers, told us she gets a new pile of “dossiers” every two weeks for clients in certain areas. She also said that until this development, her agency always had at least a 92 percent renewal rate on existing policies. But in just one month, that percentage had fallen to 80 percent with the likelihood of a longer downward spiral.
Yet it was obvious the local agents had nothing to do with these higher-level decisions. For the parent companies, it’s a matter of cutting losses. For agents, it’s losing income as many of their commissions suddenly disappear.
Think about all the small agencies that do business selling insurance near or in the mountains. Many of them could be threatened if they lose enough clients.
This is difficult to quantify, because insurance companies obviously won’t reveal how many policies they are canceling. And the many small agencies can’t be publicly critical of their parent companies.
In the case of Manitou Springs, though, the big guys might be picking on the wrong little community. Mayor Marc Snyder, himself an attorney, has expressed his anger at seeing many constituents and neighbors affected. State Rep. Pete Lee, though in the midst of a re-election campaign, is raising awareness through the legislative channels, and other lawmakers are likely to join and make that a bipartisan effort. Also, former Manitou Mayor Marcy Morrison served in the Legislature and was the state insurance commissioner from 2007 through 2010.
As Morrison puts it, Colorado needs “a change in legislation. If you are in good standing with a company and no incidences of damage, you shouldn’t have to worry.”
For the moment, like many other homeowners, we’re trying to find a different company willing to insure our home and cars. Some are out there, though insurers aren’t exactly standing in line and clamoring for the business.
But this isn’t just a consumer issue, and it’s probably not just confined to Manitou Springs and other areas close to the Waldo Canyon fire. (Surely, the Black Forest region can’t be far behind.)
It’s also about small businesses, many of whom have thrived by providing superior service, now being forced to abandon their own loyal customers.
This has happened in other states after natural disasters, most notably hurricanes. But what’s unfolding here is just as real.