It was close to midnight Jan. 16 when a pipe burst in the city-owned unit above James Richey's Boulder apartment. In a matter of minutes, what began as a ceiling leak became a full-on flood.

The flood resulted in asbestos contamination when a contracting company, hired by the building's property managers, cut giant holes in the apartment drywall.

Now, after more than three weeks living at Quality Inn & Suites, Richey, 24, and his two roommates are scheduled to return to their apartment at 3035 Oneal Pkwy. on Friday.

Their first night back, however, may be spent on the floor.

Though the city of Boulder has shelled out more than $40,000 -- for structural repairs (about $32,000), hotel fees (about $7,800) and per-diem food allowances (about $2,700) -- for the three displaced tenants, city officials won't compensate Richey and his roommates for their asbestos-infested mattresses and bedding, which must be thrown out.

"Our focus was providing shelter in an emergency situation and recreating a place that was safe for people to live in," Boulder spokeswoman Sarah Huntley said. "But we don't believe that it is appropriate for the city to pay money to purchase furniture and personal belongings that would have been covered by renters' insurance."

While Richey -- a University of Colorado graduate student who works two jobs --regrets not buying renters' insurance, he said he feels the tenants should not have to shoulder any financial burden resulting from an incident they did not cause.

"I don't think anyone can anticipate that their unit would be flooded and asbestos would be exposed," said Richey, who estimates the tenants' outstanding bed damages total about $3,000. "I'd just like to move back into my apartment as it was."

The vacant apartment upstairs, where the pipe broke, is owned by the city. Boulder acquired it in October with the intention of transforming it into a low-income housing unit.

City investigators found that the renovation work upstairs did not cause the flooding, saying the pipe was likely past its life span when it burst.

Huntley said the city was not negligent and that the aid from Boulder should not be confused with admitting fault.

"We're doing that as good neighbors," she said.

Richey said he finds that hard to believe.

"It doesn't make sense that they would pay for a number of things and go out of the way if they weren't actually legally responsible," he said. "If they truly were not negligent, why would they pay for everything that they have?"

The building's landlord, Sheri Valentiner, could not be reached for comment, but Richey said she is not planning to cover the tenants' damages.

"She told me that the correspondence should go to the city," Richey said.

Because neither Boulder nor Valentiner appears willing to pay for the furniture, the tenants have been investigating potential legal recourse.

Richey and his roommates could have invoked their right to terminate their lease based on the uninhabitable condition of the unit, but that would not have solved the problem of the damaged beds.

The tenants could pursue legal action against the contractors who caused the contamination, but Boulder attorney Josh Long questioned whether that would be worth their time and money.

Richey hoped to find someone to take the case pro bono, but every lawyer he's spoken to has requested a down payment exceeding the cost of the beds. So it's looking like the tenants will have to open their own wallets to avoid sleeping on tile floors.

"It seems everyone wants to blame someone else," Richey said. "I just would like my items that have been destroyed to be replaced."