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Basements Without Bins

In this densely packed city, every scrap of open space is treated like treasure. Open space in a basement is especially precious for storage, but if it’s unregulated it can turn into a monster headache – or, worse, into a fire hazard or a crippling legal liability. 

“It’s a very difficult thing to manage,” says Dawn Dickstein, owner and principal of MD Squared Property Group. Without rules, communal storage rooms can become “Dumpsters with doors on them,” according to Jamie Barnard, president at Giant Industrial, a storage system installer. 

But for boards that choose not to install a storage system of bins or cages, communal storage space can be an amenity without any added expense. The key is keeping chaos at bay.

Divide and Conquer

Step one is carving up the space. Dividing the room into smaller areas and assigning them to individual units can prevent one resident from hogging space – and sparking the ire of his neighbors. “[One building] had these wooden shelves that someone built back in the day,” says Brian Fink, vice president of sales at Bargold Storage Systems. Shelves of unknown provenance aren’t the only ad hoc system that boards have devised. “We see a lot of buildings with just painted yellow lines on the floor,” says Barnard of Giant Industrial.

Even a divided storage space needs policing. “It’s usually the poor super,” says Barnard. “They get the brunt from the property manager if it becomes sort of an unruly mess.” Without someone regularly checking in on the storage space, there’s nothing stopping residents from storing an extra dining room set or the entire lacrosse team’s equipment in their space, which could end up creating a trip-and-fall hazard.

“We really don’t want [residents] storing giant pieces of furniture here because they might fall on somebody’s head,” says Dickstein of MD Squared.

“When someone gets hurt by something that’s owned by another unit-owner,” says Kenny Boddye, business development manager at Kevin Davis Insurance Services, “it becomes very dicey very fast. The association wants to say, ‘This wasn’t our thing that hurt this person, it was owned by someone else.’ Then the person who owns the property that [caused the injury] says, ‘No, you guys are allowing this to be stored, and it happened on your premises, so you should cover it.’ And then you have the person who got hurt – their lawyer just wants to sue everyone.”

Limiting Liability

One way to guard against this is to develop a storage room policy. It should cover what items can and cannot be stored, as well as who has access to the storage area, and when. It should also include a waiver that removes the building’s liability if any items are damaged or stolen, or if someone is injured.

“Put a sign on the door and say you’re storing at your own risk,” says Dickstein, “and management and the board take no responsibility for anything stored here.”

Michael Stringfellow, board president at his Bronx co-op for 14 years, helped put together “Storage Facility Rules and Conduct” for the communal storage space in his 72-unit building. “We had no [official] building storage,” says Stringfellow, “outside of the small two or three rooms that the building staff used to store cleaning supplies.” There were two other spaces in the building suitable for storage. The larger was converted to a fitness center a year ago; the second had previously been used by a construction company. When it left, the board designated the space for storage, which enabled it to implement hours of access, prohibit certain items, and, importantly, waive its liability should someone get injured or any residents’ items are lost, stolen, or damaged.

An indemnification clause may not provide complete protection. Boddye of Kevin Davis Insurance says that while it does help if there’s some form of written agreement between the board and residents who use the area, it’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card. The actual efficacy of such an agreement depends on the court’s interpretation of your agreement.

“We’ve seen some courts say no, ultimately the association is responsible for this stuff,” says Boddye, “The unit owner can sign off, but ultimately they’re giving up control and care of this thing to the association. Therefore, there is some liability there.”

Clean-up time

How do you keep the space from becoming an unruly mess? With regular clean-outs. Dickstein is currently in the process of cleaning out the basement in one of the buildings her company manages. Notice was sent to residents, letting them know that certain items were improperly stored and that any items not properly stored by a certain deadline would be discarded. Follow-up reminders were sent periodically before the actual clean-out. Once the improperly stored items are either re-stored or thrown out, Dickstein says the board will post a sign to prevent residents from relapsing: “We will say that anything that is [stored improperly again] will be removed without further notice.”

Regular clean-outs and a posted list of rules can also help boards keep an eye on fire hazards. “[It’s] important to remember, when we’re talking about fire code requirements, [that] they’re a minimum,” says Julian Bazel, code counsel at the Fire Department of New York. “We may encourage buildings to be even stricter, but it’s up to them.” It’s a good idea to post or circulate a list among residents, letting them know which materials are forbidden, which ones need special handling, and which ones are allowed but strongly discouraged.

“In general,” says Bazel, “even though you might be able to store household cleaners and things like that, it should be discouraged because that’s really not what you should be storing down in a basement storage room. It’s meant for household items that don’t fit in your apartment.”

If all of this has your board about ready to swear off self-managed storage forever, there’s hope. Josh Koppel, president of H.S.C. Management, manages multiple buildings with communal basement storage. “We haven’t had any issues – and I’ve had these buildings for years,” says Koppel. “Once in a blue moon, I’ll have somebody complain about someone encroaching. We’ll find out, we’ll address the shareholder, and they’re usually pretty good about it.” Building size doesn’t seem to be an issue either; Koppel has similar success stories in buildings with 20 units and ones with more than 100.

So is it worth it to maintain a storage space in your building without cages or bins? It depends on your board’s priorities. While it can be easier to just install wire cages and contract the whole thing out, maintaining a safe, clean, and useful space can be done in-house – as long as the board is willing to put in the work.

SIDEBAR

Fire Code Rules on Things That Go Boom!

General residential fire codes apply to storage rooms. “Storage of flammable or combustible liquids is only for maintenance and operation of equipment; only for household use; and only in quantities be below ‘permit amounts,’” says Julian Bazel, code counsel at the Fire Department of New York. “Permit amounts” for combustibles are 10 gallons or less; for flammables, the threshold is five gallons.

Residents are also prohibited from storing “portable fueled equipment,” such as lawn mowers or snow blowers, but that’s less likely to be an issue than another category of appliance: liquid-fuel portable space heaters. While kerosene heaters are prohibited in New York City, other types of liquid-fuel space heaters – such as propane heaters – should not be stored in the basement because they give off vapors that can ignite and explode. –kf

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