boxed out

Victims of the Storage Wars: Losing All to Auctions

Patricia London holds a 19th century Bible that belonged to her grandmother.
Patricia London holds a 19th century Bible that belonged to her grandmother. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Before escalating monthly payments and late fees outpaced her, Patricia London salvaged just one thing from her Queens storage unit: the family Bible, said to be from 1895, its spine snapped in two.

For three years, London had tried to keep everything: her grandmother’s furs and china, an old sewing machine, a record player, the dark wood table her granddaughter pulled at while learning to walk.

“All these antiques I knew I valued because this is part of them, this is part of my family,” she said at her kitchen table in Brownsville before a spread of old pictures, collection notices and statements from Safeguard Self Storage.

London is among the New Yorkers whose valuables have been auctioned off after falling behind on self-storage payments. She’s also among the New Yorkers who came forward to tell their stories after THE CITY recently spotlighted the self-storage industry’s reach in a space-starved town.

For a time, London was part of five generations living under one four-bedroom roof in Springfield Gardens: London, her grandmother, her mother, her daughter and a granddaughter. But after the two eldest women died in 2009, the $1,900 rent became too much to handle on her security-guard salary.

On her way to a city shelter, London packed up the family’s belongings neatly in dust-proof bags and put them in storage, which the city paid for while she was homeless.

“I did all of that in remembrance of them, to show my children the old way,” she said.

Patricia London shows 19th Century Bible that belonged to her grandmother, which she almost lost when she fell behind on her storage payments.
Patricia London shows 19th Century Bible that belonged to her grandmother, which she almost lost when she fell behind on her storage payments. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

London eventually spent more than $12,800 of her own funds on storage units — including nearly $3,000 in late fees — between 2015 and 2018, her records show.

Hearing the number, she bowed her head.

“That kind of money would have got us something better than what we have,” she said, gesturing to the towers of the Van Dyke Houses around her, where it can be dangerous after dark. “I get out in the daytime, at nighttime I don’t move.”

Big Reach, Little Regulation

The self-storage industry provides many New Yorkers with a place to put their belongings, for reasons ranging from decluttering to displacement.

But with little government regulation of the sector, customers can quickly become trapped. Hundreds of New Yorkers, if not more, find themselves facing the prospect of an auction each month, according to notice listings for just one company, Public Storage.

The city government had covered the cost of London’s storage unit while she was homeless with her daughter and grandchild. But once London, 70, moved with them from the shelter into a New York City Housing Authority apartment in 2015, the $199 monthly bill for the storage fell to her.

She could barely afford it on her $1,229-a-month Social Security check.

Then the rent on the 10-by-10 foot storage unit in Hollis periodically rose until it hit $264. Falling behind on the storage payments meant a $39.80 late fee, which turned into a $52.80 late fee by 2017.

If London still had not paid by the end of the month, the threat of an auction loomed, signaled by a $100 foreclosure fee. London paid 38 late fees and seven foreclosure fees over 41 months, a statement from Safeguard shows.

But in the nick of time, London would come up with enough money to stave off the auction — twice plunking down $1,000 in cash, records show.

“I’m saying, ‘I’m going to pay these people just so I don’t lose anything,’” she said.

A Working Life

From 1969 to 1984, London worked for the Postal Service. In 1979, with three kids, she said she also joined the Army Reserve.

After the post office job, she worked for the city Department of Correction as an administrative aide for six years. More recently, she worked as a security guard.

Her possessions represented not only past memories but future hopes.

“I’ve had books on top of books, psychology books — I wanted to go back to school one day,” said London. “But unfortunately, it was a dream. But I said, ‘I could pass these on to my grandchildren.’ ”

Still, she had no way out from under the crush of storage fees. She considered giving up the unit and selling off whatever did not fit in the two-bedroom NYCHA apartment she shares with her daughter.

By that point, however, she was too far behind in payments to remove her stuff. Under state law, self-storage operators are granted a lien against the property they house, which gives them the right to auction off the contents when customers fail to pay.

London’s things were sold in November — to whom and for exactly how much, she does not know. But whatever the auction garnered, it was not enough to pay off her final balance to Safeguard. She received a $1,037.40 collection notice in April from Credit Protection Assoc. L.P., a Texas-based debt collector.

Safeguard did not return a request for comment.

London said she felt the rent increases and fees seemed exorbitant.

“I was like, ‘Look, you’re railroading me. I’m good at numbers and this, I don’t agree with,’” she said.

A collection notice Patricia London received even after all her stuff had been auctioned off. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

She had other complaints as well, but had nowhere at the city or state level to take them. The city’s Department of Consumer and Worker Protection does not regulate the self-storage industry.

The agency only licenses and takes complaints for industrial storage warehouses, “but self-storage warehouses where consumers have complete access to their storage units are exempt,” a spokeswoman wrote in an email.

The state attorney general’s website directs concerned mini-storage consumers to the Better Business Bureau, a private nonprofit that rates companies but has no oversight power.

These days, London takes comfort in the Bible her grandmother used to read to her from ever since she could remember. “She said this Bible is worth all the money in the world,” London said.

“It’s worth more than all the money in the world.”

Have you lost stuff? Let us know: rgoldensohn@thecity.nyc or text/Whatsapp/Signal 646-397-1795.

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