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In 2022, for the first time ever in the United States, average monthly rent exceeded $2,000. In cities like Austin, rents are up nearly 50 percent. Combined with persistent inflation and stagnant wages, these soaring housing costs are driving some people to take desperate measures.
Unable to pay rent or make timely mortgage payments, some residents have turned to storage units as a latch ditch effort to keep a roof over their heads. While it might seem like a resourceful idea at first glance, the truth is that living in a storage unit is both illegal and dangerous. Read on to explore the reasons why living in a storage unit should never be considered, and what you can do if you are at risk of homelessness.
Is It Illegal to Live in a Storage Unit?
The answer is yes. It is against the law to live in a storage unit in the United States. According to Brian Hoel, President of BraineTrust Storage LLC, it’s a straightforward issue. “State and local laws prohibit the residential use of storage units.”
“For example, in California, the Health and Safety Code prohibits the use of self-storage units for human habitation, and violators can face fines of up to $1,000 and eviction from the facility,” Hoel says. “In New York, the state’s Uniform Fire Prevention and Building Code also prohibits residential occupancy of storage units, and violators can face fines and imprisonment.”
Why You Can’t Live in a Storage Unit
The main reason you can’t live in a storage unit is that it’s against the law. Some people get away with living in a self-storage unit for a while, but if you get caught, you’ll be asked to leave, and you may not be allowed to continue to rent the unit for your belongings anymore, either.
That could leave you with nowhere to go or to put your things.
Why Living in a Storage Unit Isn’t Safe
People living in storage units are often noticed by the security cameras the self-storage company has installed. If you show up, but they don’t see you leave, it doesn’t take too long to figure out that you’re trying to live in your unit.
You won’t have running water or electricity, and if you don’t have a climate-controlled unit you won’t have heat or air conditioning, either. You could freeze to death in the winter months or end up experiencing heatstroke in the summertime.
What Will Happen if You’re Caught Living in a Storage Unit?
Anyone who chooses to illegally take up residence in a storage unit risks eviction, fines, and a range of legal consequences including criminal charges that depend on local and state ordinances. Not to mention, the legal ramifications of living in a storage unit with children. Getting away with living in a storage unit is unlikely as well, given that most are monitored by security and cameras 24/7. Storage operators also have ways of determining if a tenant is living in their storage unit. IRE (The Investment Real Estate Group of Companies) provides operators with four signs a tenant is living in their storage unit:
- You see the tenant a lot: If you start to notice the tenant more regularly, but they aren’t moving items in or out of their unit, this could be a sign they’ve made the unit their home.
- There’s a surge in your electrical bills: If there are electrical outlets in your storage units, a tenant could be using them to power a heater, microwave or other appliances in their unit.
- You’re low on toiletries: If you notice you’re going through more toilet paper, soap and paper towels than usual in an onsite restroom, it could indicate that someone is using your restroom to freshen up regularly and possibly living in a unit.
- You notice more trash than usual: If you’re seeing more food wrappers, beverage bottles and other household trash in your bins and dumpsters, this could be a sign that someone is living in their unit.
Health and safety risks of living in storage unit
Beyond the illegality of living in a storage unit, doing so is inherently unsafe. Some of the main risks include:
- Exposure to toxic chemicals: Even though they aren’t allowed to be stored, storage units are often used to keep hazardous materials such as paint, pesticides, or cleaning products. Even if your own unit does not contain these materials, others nearby are likely to be storing similar products. Breathing these toxins can cause respiratory complications, skin irritation, headaches, and more.
- Poor air quality: Storage units are not ventilated properly for human habitation. Mold and mildew exposure in a space without proper air circulation can put you at serious risk of illness.
- Lack of sanitation: Storage units do not have toilets, sinks, or showers. Maintaining proper hygiene without these basic facilities presents serious challenges.
- Risk of accidents and fire: Improper use of heaters and hot plates, especially in overcrowded spaces, can cause a catastrophic fire or electric shock.
Lack of amenities in a storage unit
Housing units of any kind in the United States must meet a certain basic threshold in terms of upholding basic living standards. According to David Reischer, Esq., Real Estate Attorney & CEO of LegalAdvice.com, “the law recognizes that there is an implied ‘warranty of habitability’ in all residential leases that the premises are fit and habitable for human habitation.”
Reischer says that “a storage unit has no such ‘warranty of habitability.’”
Because storage units are not designed as places of residence, they are not required to provide plumbing, running water, or electricity. Although some storage facilities are climate controlled, many would leave a resident exposed to life-threatening cold or heat, especially in certain weather events like heat waves.
Space limitations in a storage unit
By design, storage units do not receive any natural light. They have limited access to fresh air, and many of them are very small. A 5×5 storage unit, for example, is the size of a large hallway closet or a half bathroom. Living in cramped conditions without sunlight and fresh air for extended periods can put your health at risk.
Get help finding a safe and legal place to stay
If you are experiencing, or at risk of experiencing homelessness, you have options. For immediate housing, find a local shelter. (One way to search is by dialing “211,” or by visiting 211.org)
Many shelters have case workers on staff who can help you evaluate your next steps and connect you with further assistance. Some states have emergency housing assistance programs as well. The most important thing is keeping yourself and your family safe, which is why a storage unit is not a viable option.
And finally, remember that you expose yourself to legal consequences if you decide to try living in your storage unit. “Violating state and local laws can result in eviction, fines, and even imprisonment. In addition, those living in storage units may face legal action from the storage facility’s owners, who can sue for damages, unpaid rent, and other costs associated with the illegal occupancy,” says Hoel.