Rebecca Wu wishes she could just grab some photo albums from her storage unit before everything in it is at risk of going up for auction on Friday. She is two months late on the rent for the unit near where she lives in Placer County, northeast of Sacramento, and her access code to the facility has been turned off.
California has roughly 3,500 storage facilities, according to Self Storage, and is home to the most expensive storage rents in the country, according to statistics compiled by Neighbor, a company that matches people's empty space with people who need to store items. With millions of people applying for unemployment during the coronavirus outbreak, storage represents another monthly bill many can't pay right now.
“At least I wouldn’t be losing a couple of boxes of the really sacred stuff. To me, it wouldn’t be fair under the situation, but it would be decent," said Wu, who lost her job in mid-March as a home healthcare worker.
“But, as far as I know, that’s not a possibility,” Wu added.
The falling economy is likely to put many people in situations like Wu's. A Los Angeles city councilman has introduced a plan that could help people facing similar hard choices in his city, which has the second-highest storage rents in the country, after San Francisco, according to Neighbor.
Councilman David Ryu's proposal, if adopted, would temporarily prevent storage companies within the city from putting units up for auction — a common practice that can happen within a few weeks of late payment — or throwing away the items inside.
“It’s literally, do you risk your life to go out there to rummage through all the stuff to try to see what you could salvage? Or do you lose it all?” Ryu said of those faced with storage evictions during a time when the government is telling people to stay home except for essential needs. “What if there are some important documents? Family heirlooms?”
Many have been struggling to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table, Ryu said. While the city has put a halt to evictions of residential and commercial tenants during the pandemic, the protections don't apply to storage facilities.
“If you can’t pay your rent, what makes you say you can pay the storage bill?” Ryu said.
Storage facilities have been deemed essential businesses in California and have continued to operate.
And for some vulnerable Angelenos, storage facilities are more than just a place to stash extra stuff.
Brooke Carrillo, a homeless woman who sleeps in an industrial area in Chatsworth, said she depends on her storage unit to protect her belongings from rain, theft and city cleanups.
“I’m more at ease knowing my stuff is safe,” she said. “I can go to the shopping market and not have to ask someone, ‘Can you keep an eye on my stuff?’”
Carrillo said that in recent weeks, she saw a woman pleading to be let into her storage unit so she could get things to pawn and pay the outstanding bill.
“If you don’t pay, they hold your stuff hostage,” she said.
At this point, any relief offered by storage companies is voluntary.
Public Storage, a large national storage company, halted evictions and rent increases in L.A. County through the end of May, according to spokesman Paul Rose. It's unclear when that policy went into effect or whether tenants were notified.
Extra Space Storage, another national company, has halted evictions and rent increases at all of its locations, and is “empowering managers be as lenient as they want to be” with rent, including offering repayment plans and cutting late fees, but has stopped short of a blanket policy, according to spokeswoman McKall Morris.
Morris said the company was watching L.A.’s proposed legislation closely.
“We’ll follow whatever comes out of this, but we haven’t seen enough of the legislation to say we support or don’t support it,” Morris said, adding that the company is complying with a number of ordinances being put forward by cities and counties across the country.
When asked about the proposal during a news conference last week, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti said, “It’s something I’m absolutely open to.”
“People should not have the stress of losing not just their housing, but everything that they own right now,” Garcetti said, adding he would like to see more details.
Councilman Ryu said he hopes his proposal will be taken up soon. If the council approves it, the ordinance could be drafted, voted on and made law in a few weeks, Ryu said.
Times staff writer Emily Alpert Reyes contributed to this report.