The Alsbrooks family had to make a decision last year: Pay a $600 storage bill or see their winter coats, baby clothes and a treasured sneaker collection auctioned off.
“We were in the storage unit all day trying to figure out what we’re gonna take and what means something,” said C. Chanz Alsbrooks, 32, a longtime Bronx resident and home health aide.
Alsbrooks and her family’s belongings were caught in the middle of a dispute between CubeSmart, a private storage business, and the city’s Human Resources Administration, which pays some storage fees for homeless people. CubeSmart, Alsbrooks said, contends it wasn’t getting payments from HRA, which she says showed her cashed checks.
HRA spent nearly $17.5 million on storage payments to privately run self-storage companies last year. But with little oversight of the industry, New Yorkers still lose belongings to auctions.
“We went there with our suitcases and shopping cart and got what we deemed as necessary as possible and just lost the other stuff,” Alsbrooks said.
She had been in a homeless shelter with her mother and toddler daughter from March 2017 until they secured their own apartment in August 2018.
When they moved that month, Alsbrooks had to figure out if she could keep her family’s possessions. But with little living space and HRA’s help over, the Alsbrooks family gave up the storage unit.
“I’m about to move, my daughter’s more important,” Alsbrooks said, recalling her thought process. “It’s gonna continue and continue, the fees. And let’s just go.”
Agency Can Help in Time of Need
HRA, in part though a state-run grant program, often pays storage fees for New Yorkers facing housing instability. About 9,000 households, on average, have received such assistance annually since 2010, according to the agency.
To qualify, applicants must prove they’re homeless or at imminent risk of eviction, and have no other storage options. They’re also required to be below a certain income threshold, based on household size.
The agency asks applicants to come up with three estimates from different storage units to show they’ve secured the lowest price.
For clients in homeless shelters or who live in temporary housing and receive cash assistance, HRA continues payments until they secure permanent housing. Otherwise, the person has to reapply for the grant each month.
Auction Notices Piled Up
Alsbrooks’ storage dilemma began in March 2018, when CubeSmart suddenly threatened to auction her family’s belongings after claiming it hadn’t received payments, she said.
After receiving auction notices from the storage company, Alsbrooks said she went to HRA and asked why the bill wasn’t being paid. HRA officials printed ledgers showing CubeSmart was indeed cashing the agency’s checks, some of which THE CITY reviewed.
“I felt very hopeful when HRA gave me the proof. I said, ‘Oh, the proof is in the pudding and I have the pudding,’” Alsbrooks laughed. “But it didn’t help.”
After more calls and letters from CubeSmart during the last five months of the family’s time in a shelter, HRA stopped paying for their unit, Alsbrooks said.
Alsbrooks recalled an HRA agent telling her, if CubeSmart was going to cash the checks and then claim never receiving them, then the agency would not continue to pay.
“I was a little mad, but, I said, do you blame them? Who wants to give anybody extra money?” Alsbrooks said.
Lourdes Centeno, a spokesperson for HRA, declined to comment directly on Alsbrooks’ case, citing confidentiality rules.
“Every year, we provide thousands of New Yorkers experiencing housing instability with the resources they need to safely store their belongings while they get back on their feet,” Centeno said in an emailed statement to THE CITY. “And we are committed to continuing to provide this essential benefit to all those who are eligible, for as long as they need it.”
CubeSmart did not respond to multiple emails and calls requesting comment.
Price Grows Along With Shelters
HRA maintains the grant program is the most convenient and cost-effective way to help New Yorkers in need of storage, rather than operating its own storage facility by bidding out contracted work to a company, as the agency proposed a decade ago.
The plan was abandoned because those setups would potentially add costs — including leasing, hiring, security, IT and more — that the city would have to shoulder on its own. The current system allows the city to claim partial reimbursement from the federal government and state for the fees, HRA said.
“Our top priority as we provide this crucial resource is ensuring clients have the flexibility to choose from options that work for them, conveniently located within communities,” Centeno said.
The city spent nearly $17.5 million on such storage payments last year, a slight decrease from the year before, according to HRA. On the whole, the cost has grown, along with the city’s homeless shelter population, since 2012, when payments totaled $11.7 million.
But it is not clear how much of the funding goes to late fees, which can mount quickly in self-storage bills and are not subject to any government restrictions.
The Alsbrooks family aren’t the only ones who say they fell through the cracks of the self-storage industry. Some also have reported issues with HRA.
In at least 19 cases between 2011 and 2018, administrative law judges with the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance determined the city Department of Social Services, which includes HRA, had either incorrectly deemed clients ineligible for the grants or failed to respond to their application, THE CITY found.
HRA was then ordered to either enroll the applicants in their grant program or reassess their eligibility.
Little Regulation of Industry
Meanwhile, an untold number of New Yorkers lose their belongings to self-storage each year, due to varying circumstances, as THE CITY has reported in recent weeks.
Patricia London lost her things to a Queens branch of Safeguard Self Storage when she could no longer keep up with mounting rent and fees. In the South Bronx, Antonio Robinson is still unable to access his belongings trapped two years ago after a fire in a now-shuttered Tuck-it-Away branch.
And at least $1 million of unclaimed auction funds are sitting waiting to be claimed at the state comptroller’s office –– though none are listed as from CubeSmart.
The Better Business Bureau, a nonprofit group that ranks businesses’ treatment of consumers, says it has received 185 customer complaints about CubeSmart nationwide in the last three years. The bureau grades CubeSmart a D-.
Many complaints filed with the BBB claim that, as in Alsbrooks’ case, CubeSmart overcharged renters. The bureau does not verify complaints, but sends them to the company and requests a response. CubeSmart has not responded to 148 complaints, according to the bureau.
In 2018, CubeSmart took in more than half a billion dollars in rental income, while its property operating expenses totaled under $200 million, according to SEC filings.
No city or state body regulates the self-storage industry. The city’s Department of Consumer and Worker Protection licenses and takes complaints about warehouse storage — but units that customers can access themselves are exempt, agency spokesperson Abigail Lootens said in an email.
Alsbrooks was ready to move out of the homeless shelter and into an apartment of her own, one week before her daughter’s third birthday. Frustrated by her dispute with CubeSmart, she eventually decided to move on and let CubeSmart auction away the belongings they couldn’t take with them.
“After our stuff was lost, I still was like, if they’re doing this to us, they’re doing this to other people,” she said. “That’s not right.”
Have you been caught between the Human Resources Administration and a self-storage company? We’d like to hear your story. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org or text/Whatsapp/Signal 646-397-1795.
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