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Keeping Communal Storage Space From Becoming a Dumpster

Kathryn Farrell in Building Operations on March 15, 2019

New York City

Basements w.o. Bins II
March 15, 2019

Communal storage spaces can turn into “Dumpsters with doors,” in the words of one storage expert, if they’re not governed by strict rules and subject to regular culling

When confronted with the challenge of bringing order to his building’s communal storage space, Michael Stringfellow, board president at his Bronx co-op for 14 years, didn’t consult that organizational goddess, Marie Kondo. Instead, he 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 in the storage rules may not provide complete protection. Kenny Boddye, business development manager at 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 storage area, it’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card. The actual efficacy of such an agreement depends on the courts’ 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.” 

How do you keep the space from becoming an unruly mess? With regular clean-outs. Dawn Dickstein, owner and principal at the management company MD Squared Property Group, 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.” 

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.

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