After two and a half years and nearly $2,000, I recently liberated myself from the tyranny of Manhattan Mini Storage.
My storage unit was supposed to be temporary. I initially got it after moving in with my former boyfriend to save money. Our combined belongings didn’t fit in his small bedroom, so I hauled a bunch of my shit — including a broken MacBook Pro, a broken suitcase stuffed with Forever 21 clothing, my high school yearbook, a box of random books, and a stuffed animal made at the Build-A-Bear Workshop in Wesley Chapel, Florida — to the cheapest storage facility I could find, which was advertised as costing $20-ish a month but was actually double that after mandatory fees and insurance. I kept the storage unit for a few extra months when I studied abroad, figuring I’d promptly close it out upon my return to the U.S. I was wrong. I was a fool. And it’s people like me who have helped the self-storage industry thrive for decades.
One in 11 households rents a self-storage unit, at a national average cost of $87.15 per month, according to statistics compiled by SpareFoot, a startup that provides listings for self-storage units. Last year, the industry’s annual revenue was estimated at $38 billion. Although this is objectively a lot of money, industry insiders are concerned about a downturn. Public Storage, the biggest self-storage company in the country, reportedly had less third-quarter revenue growth in 2017 than it did the previous year. What comes up must go down, and it’s possible that fewer people are interested in spending $87.15 each month to store broken MacBooks and old papers.
Despite the slight downturn — which one insider recently told SpareFoot hadn’t reached the level of “a storage Armageddon or anything like that” — the self-storage industry has thrived because of two things: American consumerism and American laziness. Much like how gyms make the bulk of their profits off people who sign up for memberships but never work out, self-storage facilities profit off people who think they’re going to store some old junk while they get their life together, before ultimately realizing it’s easier to throw $87.15 at their local self-storage corporation each month than it is to actually sort through all their stuff.
Such behavior is perhaps at the core of the human condition. “Human laziness has always been a big friend of self-storage operators,” Derek Naylor, former president of Storage Marketing Solutions, told The New York Times in 2009. “Because once they’re in, nobody likes to spend all day moving their stuff out of storage. As much as they can afford it, and feel psychologically that they can afford it, they’ll leave their stuff in there forever.”
“Big Storage,” as I have come to call the industry, claims the demand for their product can be explained by something called the Four Ds. Everyone agrees on the first three Ds: death, divorce, and dislocation. In my reporting, I discovered a schism with regards to the Final D, as explained by a blog post on the Self Storage Association (SSA)’s website. Some think the Fourth D is disaster. “Hurricanes, tornadoes upset people’s lives and require storage facilities,” said Public Storage CEO Ron Havner at 2014 storage conference. Others, including the CBRE — the largest commercial real estate firm in the world — think it’s density, as in population density. And Wikipedia claims the Fourth D is downsizing.
CubeSmart, the fourth-largest self-storage company in the country, applied a modified version of the Four Ds to staging a home: Detach (from your belongings, by storing them at a CubeSmart facility near you), depersonalize (your home, by storing your belongings at a CubeSmart facility near you), declutter (by storing all your clutter at a CubeSmart facility near you), and details (plant some flowers). Regardless of what the Fourth D actually is, the point is that the self-storage industry’s whole game is making people feel like they have some semblance of control over their lives, vis-à-vis their belongings. “The big driver is change. In one way or another, people are looking for stability,” equity analyst Brad Schwer told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch last year.
Some members of Big Storage warn against relying on the Four Ds, especially as the inevitable bust of the self-storage boom looms in the distance. Investing Daily claims that the industry will likely “peak” this year, with 40 million square feet of storage opening in the U.S. alone, on top of the 156 million square feet of storage that already exist. The blog run by the SSA, Big Storage’s lobbying group, suggests trying a more positive approach, one that doesn’t remind people they turn to storage during the worst moments of their lives. The four Ds, the SSA says, “suggest that self-storage facilities thrive the most when people are getting divorced, dying, or fleeing hurricanes.” No industry wants to be perceived as predatory, even predatory ones like payday loans, or semi-predatory ones like self-storage. (To be clear, most storage facilities are not preying on poverty, but on laziness, as well as grief and precarity.)
I figured I couldn’t be the only person who had a negative self-storage experience (even though mine was primarily my fault). Nick Gardner, a friend-of-a-friend who recently rented a unit from a company called Storage Post in Queens, told me that the company pulled a bait-and-switch tactic on him. Storage Post offers a deal in which the customer gets the first month free with no commitment as long as they pay the $15 processing fee. Starting the second month, the monthly rent for the unit would be $169. Gardner, who was going to Baltimore with his girlfriend for a month, figured it was the best deal. “Then we got hit with a, I think $270 charge for [the next month]. We got one month behind and found out we couldn’t make partial payments, so they put a lien on the storage locker, which charged us another $100.” They received a three-day notice that their belongings would go up for auction, à la storage wars, if they didn’t pay in full.
A representative for Storage Post told The Outline that he would not comment on any individual cases. “We operate in compliance with all state and federal laws,” he said. “That’s the only comment I’m going to give.” In New York, those laws include the New York Lien Law 182, which requires self-storage companies to provide tenants with a written agreement and allows owners to put liens on — and eventually auction off the contents of — past-due units. The law also requires self-storage companies to provide tenants with ten-days notice of an auction, and Gardner says he was only given three.
I probably would’ve never closed out my storage unit had Manhattan Mini Storage not threatened to put a lien on my unit. Since I am a responsible young person, I set up autopay when I first got the unit and promptly forgot about it. Once I no longer needed the unit, the monthly $41 charge served as a reminder of the consequences of my laziness. I Googled “how to cancel your storage subscription” and found that you have to give one month’s notice by making a “courtesy call” to your facility. No one answered, so I left a voicemail. No one called me back, so I forgot about it. This continued for several months, and would have probably continued to this day had I not lost my wallet, forcing me to order a new credit card. The Manhattan Mini Storage payments stopped showing up, so I forgot about the storage unit altogether until I got a call from my ex-boyfriend, with whom I was no longer on speaking terms, and whom I had designated as my emergency contact when we were still on speaking terms. He said, “They told me if you don’t pay them the money you owe them and get your stuff out within 30 days, they’re going to auction off all your stuff.”
My saga, of course, is not exceptional. In 2010, a woman named Marguerite Lewitin sued Manhattan Mini Storage for failing to contact her before they auctioned off her stuff. Lewitin missed four monthly payments from May to August 2009. The company sent her a notice in June, which she said she didn’t receive — she only got a phone call in August informing her everything in her unit had been sold. Lewitin said she returned the call three days later, but it was too late. A judge ruled that Manhattan Mini Storage owed her the value of the goods she lost, but noted that the company could subtract the money Lewitin still owed them from that amount. An appraiser estimated the value of Lewitin’s belongings at $148,200, but Manhattan Mini claimed they only owed her $7,500, since her contract stipulated she couldn’t store more than $7,500 worth of goods in the facility.
Manhattan Mini isn’t the only self-storage company that has dealt with lawsuits. Public Storage is the industry leader in terms of revenue ($2.56 billion in 2016) and number of facilities (2,578 across the country that same year) and, seemingly, class-action complaints. In 2015, the a class-action suit was filed on behalf of the company’s customers in Los Angeles. According to the suit, the company subjected its customers to “illegal bait and switch advertising resulting in paying more for a storage space than was offered,” or charged them “illegal late fees” in violation of state consumer protection laws, including a law that prohibits customers from being charged more than a single late fee as well as “pre-lien fees.” Public Storage was also the target of a class-action suit in Florida after customers discovered that the insurance policy they were required to purchase wasn’t through an independent insurer, but rather through Public Storage — meaning Public Storage was charging people more for storage units than advertised. The suit was settled in 2016, and the company was required to pay $5 million to more than 200,000 customers. In New Jersey, the company faced a class-action suit after a woman named Jackeline Martinez-Santiago said the person she listed as her emergency contact slipped on ice outside the facility and sued the company, which in turn tried to use the indemnification clause on Martinez-Santiago’s contract to make her responsible for her friend’s injuries. Her case has not yet been resolved.
New Jersey storage customers have filed class-action suits against several other companies including Extra Space Storage, A-1 Storage Inc., and Uncle Bob’s Self Storage. The complaints almost always allege that the storage facilities either misled customers into thinking they were taking on a lower rate or auctioned off the contents of storage units without providing adequate notice.
For most of its history, self-storage has been a uniquely American phenomenon. America’s first self-storage facility, A-1 U-Store-It-U-Lock-It-U-Carry-the-Key, opened for business in Odessa, Texas in 1964. Its original purpose was to provide storage space for oil companies, but new companies geared at individuals began popping up shortly afterwards. According to Slate, the combination of people moving from the Northeast to the Sunbelt, rising divorce levels, and a “crisis of overaccumulation” in the ‘70s contributed to the self-storage boom. The United States is home to 90 percent of the world’s self-storage facilities, or roughly 54,000 of the 60,000 facilities in the world. Self-storage facilities are cheap to build, easy to maintain, and barely require any on-site staff. The self-storage industry withstood — and even thrived — during the recession, according to Bloomberg, and is looking to expand into blighted malls and abandoned department stores. Even though we’re buying less stuff in stores, we’re still buying more shit. That shit has to go somewhere.
But the industry may be on the decline. The Wall Street Journal reported last month that the self-storage market is getting “flooded” with competitors, which will slow overall growth and revenue. Last year, Bloomberg reported on a handful of self-storage startups, one of which photographs everything in your storage unit and uploads it onto a database, presumably so you can determine whether the things you’re storing are actually worth anything. These changes could signal an end for Big Storage, or be signs of a new renaissance. People on Reddit have discussed potential uses for storage units other than the actual storing of goods, ranging from building a sex dungeon to mining cryptocurrency. And, of course, there are always the people who use storage units to stash dead bodies.
My storage saga had a somewhat dramatic end. After my calls went unanswered for months, I finally trudged down to the actual unit, where I talked to a Manhattan Mini Storage representative. I told her what had happened and asked her to please waive the fees, since I repeatedly tried to make a courtesy call to no avail. She said no. I said it was strange that they went straight to my emergency contact instead of calling me. I became exasperated and said, “You guys never answered my fucking calls,” to which the storage unit customer service representative said, “Do not say fuck you.” They never did waive those fees.