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Belongings Sold At Auction As Missed Payments To Storage Sites Increase

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The storage business is booming during the pandemic. Millions of Americans have downsized or temporarily moved or lost a loved one. Storage facilities are packed with their belongings. But a lot of people are missing their payments, and every month, hundreds have possessions auctioned off. NPR's Ryan Kailath reports.

RYAN KAILATH, BYLINE: Like a lot of people, when Chanel Guerrero-Lambie lost her job in June, she moved in with her parents in Miami. Packed up her New York City apartment, put her stuff in storage and headed south. How much stuff?

CHANEL GUERRERO-LAMBIE: Everything. Everything, everything, everything. I have a suitcase worth of clothes, and that's about it.

KAILATH: At what point did you realize, like, I'm probably not moving back into that apartment any time soon?

GUERRERO-LAMBIE: By the end of the summer, for sure. By the time they said that the schools were not opening, I basically knew.

KAILATH: She was a manager at a nonprofit that worked with school kids - no school, no work.

How's month eight of living with the family going?

GUERRERO-LAMBIE: Losing my mind.

(LAUGHTER)

GUERRERO-LAMBIE: This is not helpful for anybody's mental.

KAILATH: She hasn't been back to New York, hasn't touched her stuff. And since she first got her storage unit, the price has doubled to $380 a month. She was still making her payments, until she was hospitalized over the holidays with COVID. She's doing fine now.

GUERRERO-LAMBIE: Oh, it's been a year (laughter), to say the least.

KAILATH: After she missed her January payment, the storage company put her stuff up for auction. Guerrero-Lambie says she reached out, offering hospital records as explanation. No dice. Even still, she feels fortunate.

GUERRERO-LAMBIE: I can't imagine other people. I mean, I'm 30 years old, and I've got things that, yeah, would make me cry, but I'm guessing there are - people's entire homes are uprooted. I can't imagine if I had kids and it was, like, my kids' stuff in there, my stuff, baby stuff, pictures.

BRAD HOYLMAN: I think a lot of us have watched the TV program "Storage Wars." Well, that's kind of what's happening here but in the context of a worldwide pandemic.

KAILATH: New York state Senator Brad Hoylman has a bill moving through the Legislature that would effectively extend eviction bans to cover storage units as well.

HOYLMAN: These are the worldly possessions of our constituents getting sold out from underneath them. So we need to close the door on any auctions proceeding as quickly as possible.

KAILATH: The ban would apply from the time it's signed and last for another year after New York's COVID state of emergency is lifted. But it's little help to people who've already lost their things. In New York, some storage companies have pledged to work with tenants facing hardship, letting them delay payments or even forgo payment, as long as they come get their stuff, because storage operators have new customers who want the space.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE MARGOLIS: We are heading into 2021 with the highest occupancy we have ever experienced at this time of year.

KAILATH: That's Joe Margolis, CEO of Extra Space Storage on an earnings call last week. The company declined to speak with NPR but said in a statement they are trying to work with tenants in New York. Margolis also told investors government regulations could hurt the business. Other states and cities have stopped Extra Space from increasing prices as much as they want to. Even still, their prices are now 10% higher than pre-pandemic levels, and the stock market's rewarding them. The share price jumped 7% on strong earnings.

GUERRERO-LAMBIE: Maybe I could buy some stock and it could pay the rent (laughter).

KAILATH: In the meantime, Chanel Guerrero-Lambie is trying to decide whether to pay for her storage unit, fly back to New York and get her old stuff...

GUERRERO-LAMBIE: Or do I just go buy a new pair of leggings? Because it's cheaper for me to buy new leggings than to have to pay them right now.

KAILATH: Ryan Kailath, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF YONDERLING AND FEVERKIN'S "SUNROOM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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