Hiro Protagonist Would Approve
May 26, 2011 2:04 PM   Subscribe

Back in 2005, the market for retail storage space in Hawaii was evaluated as "underserved [pdf]" and what the market wants, the market gets. The roll out of self storage facilities exploded; storage space in Hawaii doubled from 1.56 million square feet to 3.16 million square feet in 2010. The blocky, often featureless facilities sprang up quickly and would dominate entire city blocks, replacing dozens of retail locations at a time, to the extent that one might wonder: "Do people really have that much junk to store?" Apparently, not anymore[1]. But as the economy struggled and demand fell, the price for storage space hit a point that made sense to some unlikely clients. Instead of just outsourcing the junk drawer, why not use a storage locker for band practice, or a toy store, or even a legal practice? The Secret Life of Storage Units. posted by krippledkonscious (36 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
 
awesomesauce.
posted by blue_beetle at 2:14 PM on May 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


Plus they make cheap temporary housing for the discreet
posted by edgeways at 2:19 PM on May 26, 2011


soon we will all be living in th~ DAMMIT EDGEWAYS
posted by boo_radley at 2:21 PM on May 26, 2011


Yeah, we've got homeless people living in 'em around here, too. The outdoor kind are like ovens in Texas.
posted by Devils Rancher at 2:23 PM on May 26, 2011


I was kind of astonished when the Lockup at Kapiolani & McCully opened up (it's the one pictured on page 4 of the linked article). That seemed like pretty prime real estate to be used for self storage. But I guess there was enough demand as some point (perhaps coming out of Waikiki?).

I'm surprised there aren't more legal considerations for all these business owners operating out of a storage unit.
posted by kanuck at 2:24 PM on May 26, 2011


The problem is, the market doesn't get what it wants, but what it once wanted. (with apologies to Neil Gaiman)

We had a similar boom with mattress stores here in Honolulu.
posted by Joey Michaels at 2:28 PM on May 26, 2011 [4 favorites]


The law practice is surreal.
posted by exogenous at 2:30 PM on May 26, 2011


One of my clients has had a data center in (conditioned) storage space in a Dallas suburb for over a decade. Ahead of the curve, I guess.
posted by wierdo at 2:31 PM on May 26, 2011


Wow, this is fascinating! I knew some businesses used storage units as warehouses, and once saw a mechanic operating out of a ground-floor unit, but I never knew the different kinds of businesses operating out of them.
posted by CancerMan at 2:31 PM on May 26, 2011


Raphael:	Okay, here's your storage locker, just the way you left it.
Bob:		Thank you, Raphael.  Now, this is a ticklish question, but ...
Raphael:	You want to live in the box?  Cost you two bucks a day.
Bob:		Oh thank you, kind innkeeper.  [hands Raphael some money]
Raphael:	You gonna wanna wake-up jab?  [makes jabbing motion with a broom handle]
Bob:		Please.
Raphael:	No problemo.
posted by blue_beetle at 2:40 PM on May 26, 2011


Life imitates Snowcrash. Again.
posted by wuwei at 2:47 PM on May 26, 2011 [7 favorites]


I'm surprised there aren't more legal considerations for all these business owners operating out of a storage unit.

Suing storage unit tenants isn't likely to be very lucrative.
posted by ryanrs at 2:48 PM on May 26, 2011


The street finds its own use for things.
posted by tommasz at 2:51 PM on May 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


The StoreXpress here in Pgh rents out 13' x 20' bays with lights and outlets as "band practice spaces"; I totally want to rent one for a few months to shoot a movie in, once I have a budget for building sets, and y'know, renting the damn thing.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 2:53 PM on May 26, 2011


Sure, it seems like a great idea to live in a storage unit, but miss one payment and then the dudes from "Auction Hunters" are selling you to a collector in Sacramento.
posted by drezdn at 2:53 PM on May 26, 2011 [3 favorites]


When I was putting an apartment into storage (Silver Spring Maryland, 1999) we pulled up with the last load of the night to the storage facility, loaded the elevator, opened on our floor, and were greeted with the sound of some guy pounding on a drum set and shouting along to the greatest hits of The Police. We were about done with our load-in when the drummer finished beating out Wrapped Around Your Finger, briefly paused to eject and flip a cassette tape, then slammed his way into Roxanne.
posted by Prince_of_Cups at 3:09 PM on May 26, 2011 [3 favorites]


It should be legal to rent out living spaces like this (although they should be climate-controlled, have lighting, and have sufficient common bathrooms somewhere nearby). Not everyone needs windows, a kitchen, or a mailing address when the alternative is the street. Having a small private space is so much better than living in a giant open homeless shelter, even if there's no natural light.
In some ways, it might even be better than some apartments I've been in. They're leak-proof and mold-free.
I know I haven't completely thought this through, and that I'm basically describing a modern take on the 19th-century tenement.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 3:12 PM on May 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


There was a short-lived brewery operating out of what was basically glorified storage space in North Seattle, a couple years ago. That place was great -- the beer was good, and they were located right on a high-use bike trail. It was right on my commute.

They got kicked out; I think their landlords got nervous. Haven't seen hide nor hair of them since. <sniff>
posted by gurple at 3:24 PM on May 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


Many years ago, my husband attended an auction at a storage place. The owner opened up the unit to reveal a king sized bed, theatrical lighting, props and a rack of costumes of the French maid, pool boy, caveman variety.
Even now, I smile and think that one man's storage unit is another's porno empire....
posted by pentagoet at 3:37 PM on May 26, 2011 [4 favorites]


It should be legal to rent out living spaces like this

I doubt most of the spaces are sprinklered. It's all fun and games until a dozen poor families burn to death.
posted by ryanrs at 3:41 PM on May 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


I doubt most of the spaces are sprinklered. It's all fun and games until a dozen poor families burn to death.

And I think that's much of the issue here. The fact is, these spaces COULD be used for base-minimum housing of last resort (as shown in the article, as well as several fictional representations in Snow Crash and Shortbus), but they won't be for this very reason. I suspect that whether one believes they should be legal for housing use would make a pretty interesting political-spectrum litmus test, actually.
posted by deadmessenger at 3:47 PM on May 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


Why would the fire hazard risk be higher than an apartment building? The towers already have fire exits, and the ground-level units have doors to the outside. You could add a smoke detector to each unit for all of $10.

Of course, these units are generally unoccupied and full of flammable things, which does increase the chance of a fire.

deadmessenger, explain what you mean. I knew I ran the risk of looking like I'm advocating substandard housing, but I really do believe a storage space (as I described above) is better than a homeless warehouse or the street. Think of it like a safe-injection site.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 4:08 PM on May 26, 2011


These units don't have sprinklers, ventilation, running water, garbage service, sufficient electrical service, or other utilities. The key difference between a storage unit and a tin shack in a Mumbai shantytown is that the storage unit doesn't have people living in it.

Converting a commercial warehouse or retail space into housing is one thing, but storage units don't even have toilets.
posted by ryanrs at 4:30 PM on May 26, 2011


Or I could also say, the perfect is the enemy of the good.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 4:30 PM on May 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


Requiring toilets isn't the same as requiring perfection.
posted by ryanrs at 4:32 PM on May 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


I was home in March this year, and I was pretty shocked by the explosion of storage spaces. All through Chicago and Kalamazoo (sadly the only places I visited) buildings had been converted in to strorage units. My first thought was, if people need that much space to store things, why? Because they're having to move from bigger places to smaller? Is the economy that bad? And, well, yeah, obviously it is.
posted by Ghidorah at 4:35 PM on May 26, 2011


I can see why we ban people living in the self storage units. Otherwise you create a race to the bottom situation, where the normal building codes will no longer be enforceable. It's similar to minimum wage laws.

The real issue is why the economy is so bad that people have to resort to living in windowless tenements without bathrooms. That's the problem we should address, not changing the laws to let people live in self storage units.
posted by wuwei at 4:36 PM on May 26, 2011


ryanrs, that's what I said above: "although they should be climate-controlled, have lighting, and have sufficient common bathrooms somewhere nearby". I'm not talking about a storage space exactly as they exist now, but something similarly cheap to construct and rent, with some added amenities.

You have a good point about garbage service.

Saying we should never legitimize this as a housing choice does nothing for the people already living, or who will live, in storage spaces.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 4:47 PM on May 26, 2011


pruitt-igoe, what I meant is that no storage facility owner in the US in their right mind would allow people to live in a unit, nor would any liability insurer issue a policy if they did, nor would most governments tolerate it even if the storage owner was somehow able to get insurance.

My personal feeling is that I agree with you - from a housing perspective, a storage unit beats the hell out of sleeping on a sidewalk or under a bridge, even when factoring in the undeniable fire hazard risks. (I mean, really - what's the bigger risk - burning to death in a unit, or dying of exposure on a sidewalk?) I just can't imagine a situation like that being tolerated by various corporate and governmental entities, that's all.
posted by deadmessenger at 4:49 PM on May 26, 2011


Pruitt-Igoe, then you're not talking about storage units, or even re-purposed storage units. You're talking about a building specifically designed to house people. And that totally messes up the economics of operating a storage space. Storage space as a business is predicated on cheap buildings operating with fairly low management overhead. But live-in tenants, especially very poor tenants, are a huge pain in the ass to deal with.

Because it is against the rules to live in storage spaces, only very discreet people manage to do so. So there is a very strong bias towards people who are quiet, have their shit together, and don't cause problems. These people make good tenants. But as soon as storage living becomes legal, you loose that filter and the quality of tenants will plummet.

Of course, once you have legal tenants, you also have to deal with tenants' rights. The storage operator thus loses the ability to throw people out at a moments notice and auction off their stuff. Nasty as that practice may be, it is a very useful tool in operating an efficient, economic rental operation. So that will drive up the cost of space, too.

In short, the fact that people can't live in storage space is one of the major factors that makes storage space cheap to rent. If you remove the prohibition on residential use, you lose the cheap price, too.
posted by ryanrs at 5:22 PM on May 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


We live in a dinky apt where there isn't any room to even exercise. Opened up a storage unit, and part of it will be an exercise room with nordic track, stationary bike and yoga mat.
posted by I'm Brian and so's my wife! at 8:14 PM on May 26, 2011


As ryanrs points out you can't really live in a storage unit without being very quiet and discreet. Not for long, anyway. There's no toilet or running water, and there usually isn't even an illicit or discreet way to dispose of waste unless it's the sketchiest and least professional storage units. Carrying a bucket of human waste out and a jug of water in every day gets really old, fast, and it's paradoxically harder to do in urban environments - at least not without getting busted by The Man in his many forms.

Also, most storage units have timed alarms on the doors. If they're opened after hours or without the proper entry-exit sequence as indicated by your passcode or card at the gate - it's trouble. Some even have motion sensors inside each unit for just this sort of thing.

I've never actually lived *in* a storage unit but I've lived out of one and was camped nearby. It was really handy to have a cheap place to store my crap out of the rain that I could access on a daily basis if needed. Granted this was a rather comfortable sort of semi-homelessness I was doing to save up some money. I was working at the time at a university campus and camped nearby. As staff I had legitimate access to the campus and coin-op laundry facilities. There were even showers available in a variety of locations. Hell, even my boss knew. He thought it was weird but as long as I showed in a clean clothes and did my job he didn't care.

What you do see more of is people who will show up in their car or (like me) on a bicycle or even foot and spend the day pretending and/or legitimately sorting their stuff. I'd put away, fold and sort clean laundry so it was ready to go. But I didn't really hang out much because, really, camping somewhere where there's more room and less people/traffic is a more attractive option.

I have lived in industrial units that were basically just larger storage units. Concrete and metal and limited insulation or weatherproofing. Some of them were legitimate, like live-work spaces for artists (read: urban gentrification programs) where it functions like an SRO with group bathrooms and showers, not to mention laundry facilities and utility sinks for washing out brushes and such.

And storage unit or cargo container high density living can work, but I've lived in a variety of really high density group housing in a variety of scenarios and it's... kind of gross sometimes. Dangerously unsanitary. Just a few unwashed hands away from a dysentery outbreak.

Honestly, there's a reason why we have health and building codes and zoning laws. Not all of them make sense, but there's a reason why public health officials in the developed world don't want people packed in like sardines and living cheek to jowl and pissing all over each other even if they want to, and it's not just about fire danger, or crime. If it's done wrong what we're talking about is a bad old ghetto or shanty town.

Anyway, people are already living in (or more accurately, out of) storage units all around the world. Probably right in your city or town.
posted by loquacious at 9:12 PM on May 26, 2011 [5 favorites]


I know I haven't completely thought this through, and that I'm basically describing a modern take on the 19th-century tenement.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 6:12 PM on May 26 [+] [!]


Eponysterical?
posted by schmod at 9:33 PM on May 26, 2011


In some ways, it might even be better than some apartments I've been in. They're leak-proof and mold-free.
I know I haven't completely thought this through, and that I'm basically describing a modern take on the 19th-century tenement.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 6:12 PM on May 26 [


I think you also described prison.

And honestly, I wouldn't mind some of those obscenely oversized prisons repurposed as makeshift homes like you describe. It always strikes me as bizarre that many people have no problem paying taxes to build more jails and send more criminals there (to feed and clothe them), but won't give a red cent to the homeless, lest they be "communist"
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 1:23 AM on May 27, 2011


Chalk me up as someone who has lived in places that were worse than a storage space; between undergraduate and graduate school, I spent time in rooming houses that had been pretty nice places until they were chopped up into individual rooms, places where your next door neighbors seemed to be constantly scheming to steal what little stuff you had and you could hear it whenever anyone in the house was fucking and the bathroom was decorated with an entertaining variety of bodily fluids, no matter how often you cleaned, and the only time there were batteries in the smoke detectors was when the fire inspectors came. I sometimes wondered if I'd have been better off if I'd stuck my stuff in a storage unit, gotten a free membership at the Y for showering and something to do, and bought a panel van that was in just good enough shape to move from one place to another to avoid getting ticketed or towed, or just camped out in the storage space with a bottle to piss in. If there had been a storage facility close enough to public transportation, I might have been able to pull it off.

But, of course, that's just the fantasy of a middle-aged man who resents various encumberances and financial obligations that seem to have accreted on him like barnacles. At the time, instead of dreaming of ways of living la vida dumpster, I was trying to get into a quote-endquote real apartment, even if it was an efficiency with a bathroom that was hardly big enough to turn around in and a kitchenette with a stove that was barely larger and more powerful than an Easy-Bake Oven. I had to rent a storage space recently, and even though it was just for a few months, I think that I would have been pretty pissed off if the corridor had reeked of sewage because someone who was used to taking their morning dump at the nearby McDonald's had come down with the flu or dysentery and had to use their emergency plastic bucket.

uh, GetOffMyLawnFilter?
posted by Halloween Jack at 1:40 PM on May 27, 2011


Pruitt-Igoe writes "Why would the fire hazard risk be higher than an apartment building? The towers already have fire exits, and the ground-level units have doors to the outside. You could add a smoke detector to each unit for all of $10."

I don't know about Seattle but codes in Canada for residences are more restrictive than storage space. Width of stairs, emergency lighting, ventilation, fire containment are all harder in residential construction. Even simple things like electrical systems have requirements that storage units do not meet. Right off the top of my head it is unlikely each unit has it's own circuit and they are really unlikely to have shutoffs contained within the unit. People plugging stuff like hot plates and refrigerators into the lighting circuits are most likely overloading those circuits.

Also aren't most of these units designed to lock with a padlock from the outside. It seems like you'd be at risk of some prankster locking you in any time you had the door shut.
posted by Mitheral at 5:40 PM on May 27, 2011


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