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Surprising Submarket

San Francisco is beautiful in the spring. When the rain holds, the weather is clear and crisp, the foliage green and lovely. Its amazing to think the whole city was built after 1906, when the earthquake and fires whipped out the old San Francisco. Self-storage is just one of the many businesses that blossomed here over the years. The Yellow Pages is chockfull of stores. As a visitor to any city, Im always curious about the local submarkets and who all the customers are. It turns out many storage units in San Francisco are rented by homeless people.

By chance I am in San Francisco for the commemoration of the 100-year anniversary of the 1906 quake and fire, which destroyed almost the entire city. The devastation left many thousands of people homeless; they lived in tent cities during the rebuilding or moved away.

From the looks of San Francisco today, you might think the 1906 refugees are in their third or fourth generation and still waiting for new residences. The homelessness problem apparently was never resolved. Its astounding how many people live in the streets. You cant walk 10 steps without stepping over someone or being asked for a hand-out.

I have nothing personal against homeless people. I feel sorry for the ones who are in the situation through no fault of their own or because of a medical condition, or because they fell through the cracks of aid services.

But I also feel the tiniest bit of envy for those who deliberately choose the free life: No bills to pay, no housework, no job to get in your way. On a pretty day, you could sit in the park and enjoy every second of it, watching the sun slowly move across the sky and noting how the shadows play with the landscape. If you had a check coming every month from somewhere, you might be able to eat a decent meal every day and go see a movie once in a while.

Home Sweet Storage

On the other hand, I dont think the sleeping accommodations or the rest room facilities are exactly what I would enjoy. And what would you do with your most cherished belongings? You cant carry everything you own all the time. You have nowhere safe to leave them. Ah, you get a storage unit. Need a change of clothes? No problemgo to the storage unit. Want to look at pictures of your grandkids or re-read your favorite book? Your storage unit awaits.

What a bizarre and uniquely American win-win situation. Homeless people want to keep and protect the few things dearest to them. Storage operators need to rent storage units. A perfect match.

It also turns out the homeless are great storage customers. They pay cash on time every month because they treasure their few belongings. They keep the units long-term. Even if they head to Vegas or Los Angeles or San Diego for the cooler months, they pay their rent upfront and come back when they return to the City by the Bay.

As a storage operator in San Francisco, you must take into account the needs and habits of your homeless customers. Seems a little odd, but why not? Operators who live in other major cities with a major homeless population should likewise examine if they are providing needed services.

Isnt this a cool country and a great industry? We dont care if you are homeless. If you need services, we can provide them. You are willing to pay a few dollars on time each month? We are more than happy to help you out.

In a slightly warped, but truly nondiscriminatory kind of way, we are accepting peopleif not for the content of their character, at least for the content of their storage units.

What markets are you serving that might not be the traditional markets? 

Tron Jordheim is the director of PhoneSmart, an off-site sales force that helps storage owners rent to more people through its call center, secret-shopping service, sales-training programs and facility locator. You can read what he is up to at For more information, e-mail [email protected].

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