'During turmoil, we do good business': Storage unit companies thrive as people pour out of SF

Storage units have been in demand since the pandemic began. | Photo: Courtesy of Affordable Self Storage
By Britta Shoot - Published on July 02, 2020.

Deanna Surma had just finished moving from San Francisco to Oakland when the pandemic shut down the Bay Area.

"I needed more space," said Surma, a tech worker who traded her San Francisco studio for a bigger apartment in a full-service Oakland building.

But when COVID-19 struck, the new building's amenities — a pool, Jacuzzi, and barbecue area — became off-limits to tenants.

"A lot of the reason I was paying more was no longer relevant," Surma said. So she decided to move again: back to San Francisco, where she's living with her sister and helping to care for her sister's twin toddlers until the pandemic subsides.

Surma had briefly put her belongings in storage for the first move. Now, they're back in storage again as she waits out the next one. 

It's a familiar tale to Albert Turner, who handles marketing and customer relations for Treasure Island's Affordable Self Storage. He says he hasn't seen customer demand like this since the 2008 recession.

"Right now, I'm up," he said. "I was up 10 years ago, too."

Affordable Self Storage's Treasure Island office.

In the Great Recession, Affordable Self Storage — which has four facilities in the Bay Area — did well with business owners who were suddenly forced to close up shop, and needed somewhere to stash equipment, fixtures, and furnishings.

The business owners have returned, Turner said, and they've been joined by new groups: tech company employees reconfiguring their lives, and students temporarily displaced from campus housing.

At one massive, multi-story warehouse, a representative said that nearly all of the smaller storage units have been rented out in recent months.

Affordable Self Storage's Ruben Carabeo says that for every customer moving out of a storage unit right now, two are moving in. Some are students from UCSF, who had to quickly move their belongings into storage when the dorms shut down, he said. 

Students from the Academy of Art University and the (temporarily) shuttered San Francisco Art Institute have also been major customers, said employees at two other storage unit companies in the city. (They requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on behalf of their employer.)

With the virus still a major concern, all the storage companies we spoke to say they've instituted new safety policies. Some have installed Plexiglass in customer service areas, and all are metering customers into storeroom areas to promote social distancing in the corridors.

Storage units at Public Storage in SoMa. | Photo: Public Storage/Yelp

Given the typically tight-knit relationship between storage and moving, Hoodline reached out to a dozen moving companies in San Francisco to see if their demand was also accelerating. None would offer comment.

For her two relocations, Surma used Clutter and MakeSpace, both of which offer combined moving and storage services for people in transition. MakeSpace was so busy, she said, that she had to reserve a slot several weeks in advance. A MakeSpace representative confirmed the company has seen demand jump in recent months. 

Affordable Self Storage's Turner says that storage is a "good indicator" of the general health of the economy — and not in a good way.

"During turmoil, we do good business," he said.

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