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Trouble in Storage

September 29, 2002

So now it appears that pretty soon they'll need to build sprawling, ugly self-storage units to store the growing number of sprawling, ugly self-storage units going vacant. Business is dropping nationally, mainly because of overbuilding and increasing competition in what has basically been a get-rich-quick scheme to rent storage space for junk you want to own but don't want to step over every day.

Everything is more crowded nowadays. The standard intersection has only four corners, and with inconvenient convenience stores occupying two of them, there's only so much room left for banks, burgers, nail salons, one-hour photo shops and self-storage units. Homes have the same space jam.

The basement was invented in medieval days to store misbehaving peasants. It was called a dungeon. The democratic and more spacious New World disdained such dank places until the growth of a middle class that prized owning a lot of stuff.

At first, Americans stored their stuff in the barn, then the attic of the house. With the advent of earth-moving equipment came an exotic dark place called the basement. This was a large area beneath the house containing the furnace, Dad's workbench, a washing machine, nonseasonal clothes and high school yearbooks. Basements also made excellent homes for mice and storage tanks for excess rainwater during wet years.

As housing became more expensive and American family sizes grew, basements were turned into family rooms, where children could be noisy and wreck furniture while the adults lived upstairs with their good stuff.

The basement made so much sense for utilizing another level of limited urban land space that Southern California builders abandoned the concept. Furnaces went in the attic. Air conditioners went in the backyard. And all of the family's stuff had to go somewhere.

Enter the neighborhood self-storage facility, a mind-numbing line of cement-block cubicles where stuff could be stored until it rotted or could be donated for an inflated tax deduction. Or sold at the next garage sale and moved to another family's cement-block cubicle to await future garage sales.

More than 35,000 self-storage facilities--some 6,000 in California alone--scar the American landscape today, a 60% jump in 10 years. Self-storage complexes also boosted the chain-link fence business.

Demand for these basements-away-from-home was so great that monthly rents could rival actual apartment rents somewhere. (1 rm apt, grnd flr, no brms, bth or vu). Self-storage became a lucrative monthly rent-collection business for landlords free of noisy parties, dirty pets and plugged bathroom pipes. But now vacancy rates are rising.

Here's one solution: Rent empty units to the Corrections Department as dungeons.

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