With increasing pressure on self-storage facilities to pause auctions for hard-hit customers, industry officials have a new message for those who can’t pay: Make a deal or just get out.
Industry representatives say that with storage demand high in New York with many people’s living arrangements in a pandemic-driven flux, owners need their spaces back to rent to new, paying customers.
Storage industry officials urged current customers to try and strike a deal — and noted some owners are willing to waive outstanding balances and let people get their things in exchange for immediately vacating units.
“While we can’t guarantee any particular arrangement, we are seeing the majority of storage operators offer rent deferrals, payment plans, and even abatement of amounts owed in exchange for vacating the storage unit,” Jon Dario, chairman of the New York Self Storage Association and chief operating officer of Edison Properties, parent company of Manhattan Mini Storage, said in a statement to THE CITY.
But some renters who lost work during the pandemic told THE CITY that the payment plans they were offered were still well beyond what they could afford.
“My second payment is due today, I can’t pay it,” said one woman who asked to remain anonymous out of fear the storage company would retaliate against her for speaking to the press.
The plan requires her to pay her entire outstanding balance, nearly half of which is fees, in a month — roughly $275 every 10 days.
“I said to them, I hate signing something that I know that I can’t uphold,” she said. “I’m only signing it ‘cause I had no alternative.”
‘I Feel Helpless’
No city or state agency oversees the self-storage sector, leaving no limits on spontaneous rent hikes or the extra fees operators charge.
After THE CITY reported last month that the contents of hundreds of storage units were going up for bid, Albany lawmakers proposed an auctiuons moratorium, citing the pandemic’s economic toll. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has yet to weigh in.
Funds raised when a storage unit is auctioned — often as little as $10 for a unit that does not look particularly valuable — go toward meeting the renter’s unpaid storage balance. The money taken in is frequently not enough to cover the bills, which tend to include a bevy of fees.
But the items inside are sometimes priceless to their former owners.
Mary Winfield, 62, wants to retrieve her wedding photos from a unit in her deceased husband Frank DeCostanzo’s name before her unit can be auctioned off. But she is short the $925 — three months back rent, plus a $15 “lien notice fee.”
Winfield, who has been out of work and moved in with her son in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, after losing her own home, would also like to sell some of the wedding gifts she had saved for decades.
“I feel helpless,” she said.
Throughout the pandemic, storage facilities have been an in-between place for New Yorkers unsure of their next steps, local movers told THE CITY. The facilities also house possessions of New Yorkers who live in shelters — and who struggle to keep up with payments once they move out.
What Can You Do?
With thousands of potential auctions looming as the holidays approach — Public Storage had 361 set for Christmas Eve in The Bronx alone, as of Friday — THE CITY asked industry officials and consumer advocates what customers in a pinch should do.
Communication is Key
Dario from the Self-Storage Association said that customers who are unable to make their monthly self-storage payments due to pandemic-related financial hardship should start by answering phone calls or letters from the company.
“First, do not ignore communications from your storage facility,” he said. “Second, reach out to the storage facility, explain your situation, and request some special arrangement.”
Call for Legal Help
People can call Legal Aid’s Access to Benefits Helpline (888-663-6880). Monday through Friday, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m, said Anne Callagy of The Legal Aid Society. Interpreters are available for most languages.
Seek a Grant
If the auction is soon, go “masked up” to the open Human Resources Administration center in your borough to apply for an emergency storage grant, said Lisa Pearlstein of the City Bar Justice Center.
You can call 311 or look online to find out where your nearest center is located. You should bring all the identification documents you can — such as your birth certificate or other proof of identity, a storage bill, and proof of residence and income, she said.
It is also possible to apply for the grant online, but you might need to follow up in person. If your situation is not urgent, start online at the Access HRA site.