ISS Blog

The Demonization of Self-Storage Operators: When Your Rights Become a PR Nightmare

I don't care if you love your job operating a self-storage facility. I don't care if it's immensely gratifying, you love "working with people," and you wake up every morning eager to begin your day. In the end, the primary driving factor behind facility ownership and/or management is to make money, honey. If you happen to love what you do, bully for you; but the business is there to generate cash. That's why it's a business and not a charity or a hobby.

Which is why it's so very frustrating when mass media outlets such as the Boston Herald make you out to be malicious fiends every time you exercise your legal right to collect rent and reclaim your delinquent units. Apparently, you're in business "for your health," and you don't need to generate income. Your expectation that people should pay for services rendered makes you, apparently, a demon.

Today the Boston Herald published an article about Jeanette Spencer, a now-homeless woman who owes Planet Self Storage $650 in back rent and fees and is at risk of losing her goods at auction. It's one of those heart-wrenching articles intended to garner public sympathy and perhaps even incite readers to dig into their pockets and help the cause. That's perfectly fine, except in the process, they've made Planet Self Storage sound like a Horseman of the Apocalypse. Famine maybe.

The article includes a quote in which Jeanette refers to the storage operator as "cruel," and goes on to say Planet Self Storage did not respond for comment. It also includes a plea from an advocate for Hearth, a nonprofit organization that helps homeless elders, expressing hope that the storage operator will give Jeanette time to "scramble" for the money.

You can read Jeanette's tale of woe. It is regrettable, and my heart goes out to her. But the issue is not Jeanette's dire straits. Storage operators worldwide deal with customers just like her every month, tenants who are down on their luck and struggling to make ends meet. Regardless of Jeanette's individual circumstances, the bottom line is still this: Planet Self Storage is in business to make money, and as long as Jeanette occupies one of its units without payment, she is damaging that business. The operator has a legal right to reclaim the space, and that doesn't make the operator heartless. It makes the operator prudent.

For the record, I am not saying operators shouldn't have sympathy and work with tenants whenever possible to come to a happy resolution. We have enough public-relations challenges without pumped-up media exposés that paint our industry in the worst possible light; and like everyone else, business operators should exercise compassion in their dealings with others. I've heard industry experts recommend that an operator accept a partial payment in exchange for the delinquent tenant's move-out, in order to reclaim the space. I've read on the Self-Storage Talk forum about managers who work out payment plans with tenants for back rent. These are good-hearted solutions to the situation when feasible.

Such resolutions are not always possible, however, and if you're dealing with multiple delinquencies every month, as many operators are these days, it's challenging to manage the terms of each individual case. A facility manager or owner cannot spend all of his time chasing down rent and holding tenants' hands. So you do it as much as you can; after that, you follow your state statute and exercise your legal rights.

Managing your business to the letter of the law does not make you a monster, even if the media says so. There's a fine line between running a business humanely and running it into the ground, and for self-storage, that line often perches delicately on the issue of unpaid rent. Where do you draw that line?

I'd like to hear from facility operators out there. When it comes to delinquent tenants, do you always follow your state's legal lien procedure, or do you make exceptions? In what situations do you forego your legal right to auction goods? Do you have an example of a situation in which you worked one-on-one with a tenant to avoid a sale? Please share your thoughts on the blog.

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