Business & Tech

Self-storage offers space for stuff. But it gobbles up space.

“We could not live without our storage unit,” says Sally Lesser, a costume designer who lives in Brooklyn Heights.

Bess Adler/The New York Times

“We could not live without our storage unit,” says Sally Lesser, a costume designer who lives in Brooklyn Heights.

NEW YORK — Sally Lesser really needs a bigger apartment. Instead, she has a storage unit.

Into her 70-square-foot nook goes everything she cannot cram into the one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn Heights she shares with her husband: out-of-season clothing, old files and Christmas ornaments, playbills from long-ago shows, even their grown son’s childhood toys. All for $275 a month.

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“We could not live without our storage unit,” said Lesser, 66, a costume designer. “Where are those Thomas the Tank Engines going to go?”

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For many New Yorkers, a storage unit or two (or three) is the only solution to living small. It is the spare closet or extra room that they don’t have, or can’t otherwise afford in a crowded city with ever shrinking and more expensive living quarters, including micro-apartments that are barely larger than storage units themselves. It is a temporary holding place for those in between jobs, moves, marriages, and divorces, and an extension of the workplace for small businesses.

But as self-storage buildings have multiplied across the city, they are drawing increased scrutiny from city officials and community groups who say they take up space that could be used for something more productive. Now the city is proposing to restrict the development of new self-storage buildings in some industrial areas in the boroughs outside Manhattan, as part of a broader strategy to save more land for manufacturing and industry.

New York joins a small but growing number of communities, including San Francisco, Miami, and Charleston, S.C., that have moved to restrict or curb the spread of self-storage buildings, seeking to strike a balance between the demands for more storage with the needs of communities for other things such as jobs, housing, and grocery stores.

While even critics acknowledge that storage is needed, especially in space-challenged cities, some see the proliferation of these massive boxes as emblematic of the hoarding ways of Americans. As comedian George Carlin joked about people’s growing piles of material possessions: “That’s what life is all about, tryin’ to find a place for your stuff!” Now the question for many is: Just how much storage does this country need?

Lesser works in one of the artist studios on the top floor of Brooklyn’s Treasure Island Storage in New York.

Bess Adler/The New York Times

Lesser works in one of the artist studios on the top floor of Brooklyn’s Treasure Island Storage in New York.

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“We have a lot of self-storage facilities out here, and people are tired of seeing them pop up,” said Charles Johnson, a councilman in Baytown, Texas, a city of about 75,000 near Houston with 23 self-storage buildings and two more under construction. At his suggestion, the local newspaper, The Baytown Sun, recently asked its readers if there should be a self-storage cap. They voted yes by nearly 2-1.

The self-storage industry has grown to about 50,000 sites nationwide after evolving from the moving-and-storage business in the Midwest and the South in the late 1960s, said Timothy J. Dietz, president and chief executive of the Self Storage Association, an industry group. Nearly one-third are concentrated in Texas, California, Florida, Ohio, and North Carolina.

Dietz said self-storage provided residents and businesses small, secure spaces, flexible month-to-month leases and cheaper prices than traditional warehouses.

“Self-storage has become part of the fabric of our culture,” he said. “It helps families in transition, businesses, soldiers, retirees.”

New York, perhaps surprisingly, has actually lagged the rest of the country in self-storage capacity and is the most undersupplied major metropolitan market, with an average of 3.5 square feet per person compared with 7.2 nationally, said R. Christian Sonne, an executive vice president for CBRE, who follows the industry.

New York City’s 240 self-storage buildings include about 60 that have opened in the past decade, according to industry estimates. Many are accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week, offering free coffee, restrooms, and internet access.

City planners have proposed a special permit for self-storage sites in designated industrial areas that would establish a review process that would take about two years on average. The city’s manufacturing base has shriveled, to 76,300 workers in 2016 from 265,200 in 1990. The permit proposal requires the approval of the City Planning Commission and the City Council.

In a similar move, San Francisco carved out industrial districts that ban the development of self-storage buildings, along with hotels and office towers. “These industrial areas would not exist at all if you didn’t have protections for them,” Steve Wertheim, a San Francisco city planner, said.

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