Jeff Gordon steered his pickup to the locked gate of Extra Space Storage in Elkhorn. With him was his wife, Kim. And together, the suburbanites were about to do something radical.
The Gordons were about to load up more stuff from Unit 4219 and — gasp — get rid of it. They had come to Extra Space to empty the rented room. Not fill it up.
“We’ve got too much stuff,” Jeff said sheepishly inside a rented storage unit that still contained his 13-year-old daughter’s dollhouse, Christmas decorations, camping equipment, books, yard tools, bike racks and odds and ends.
“People here?” he added, looking down a tidy row of locked garage doors shielding who-knows-what from view. “They’ve got too much stuff.”
The Gordons’ mission diverges from the pack-rat trend that is driving the boom industry of self-storage. There are, according to one estimate, more self-storage businesses in America than McDonald’s restaurants. And self-storage businesses appear to be growing in number and visibility in Omaha. Increasingly, they are fancy garages with features like climate control and drive-thrus.
While in demand, they aren’t always popular with neighbors. This Elkhorn facility at 204th and Farnam Streets was controversial, with the fight ending up before the Nebraska Supreme Court before it was cleared to be built.
Two of the area’s storage business owners say there is plenty of room for growth. They have a combined four storage facilities — averaging between 600 and 700 units each — in the works.
“Demand is about twice of what the supply is,” said Daryl Leise, who is one of the owners of this Extra Space facility in Elkhorn, where the Gordons are unloading. Leise also is one of the owners of another one at 192nd and Harrison Streets. He plans to build up to eight more storage facilities in Omaha, Des Moines and Kansas City.
He said there is more demand for climate-controlled places that are closer to where people live. That, combined with city design standards on how they must look in certain areas, means you’re starting to see more closer to residential neighborhoods.
It’s difficult to know just how many storage facilities there are. City officials did not have a ready number, though Jay Davis, assistant city planning director, said it seems like every time it rains, one pops up. A Google search pulled up dozens — far more than the 22 McDonald’s I saw on Google in the city and more than all 43 Starbucks coffee counters. I tried going through online brokerage services to see where I could rent a standard 10-by-10 unit.
SpareFoot pulled up 15 facilities in a wide radius including Blair and Gretna and completely ignoring the midtown facilities I knew about. Selfstorage.com had six pages of storage facilities, telling me that 41 units had been rented the day before but I could still get one for about $79 a month.
Clearly there’s demand. What is driving it?
It’s not like our basements and attics have shrunk. The average size of a new house built in the U.S. grew 52 percent — from 1,645 square feet in 1973 to almost 2,500 square feet last year, according to the U.S. Census.
It’s not like we Americans just discovered stuff. Consumerism long has been part of the national ethos, with household consumption adding up to about two-thirds of our Gross Domestic Product.
It’s not like life-changing events like death, divorce or moving have dramatically altered, though “drama,” as local storage unit owner Dave Paladino calls it, is good for business.
“We LOVE drama,” said Paladino, who has eight Dino’s Storage facilities around the Omaha area and is building two more facilities at 72nd and Maple and at 192nd and Q. Among all his locations — including three facilities in Iowa and one in Winnipeg, Canada, Paladino manages some 12,000 individual storage units.
Leise (pronounced LYE-zee) speculated that the demand is coming from a society that is becoming more mobile, as well as more accessible and desirable self-storage. And, he said, people who are not experiencing a life-changing event simply want their basements and garages back from “disaster.”
“They want to live with less clutter,” he said.
Paladino said an economy “on fire” and people with more disposable income are driving business. He said there’s no typical storage renter.
“It’s everybody. You and me. All demographics,” he said.
That was not the contention of Rex Moats, a local attorney who lives in the Elk Valley neighborhood where this Extra Space Storage sits and who represented neighbors in a court fight to block the storage facility. (The Nebraska Supreme Court sided with the City of Omaha Planning Board, which had approved the facility, comprising 700 units in a three-story building and in low-rise traditional garage-door storage units.)
Moats had complained to the planning board that self-storage facilities had not traditionally been placed in neighborhoods like this, where houses are valued at $300,000 and higher. They were more likely to sit near trailer parks.
An Omaha planning board member said he did not like the subtext — that self-storage was for lower-income people. The planning board then approved the facility.
Neighbors had complained that the facility would hurt property values, cause light and noise pollution and draw crime. They’d submitted a petition with 291 signatures. Those who live east of the facility have backyard views that look directly upon the garages.
For his part, Moats certainly didn’t want to live by a storage facility and questioned the need for one in the first place. He is not happy it’s there.
“I’m a 53-year-old man with a wife and four kids ranging from age 21 to 13 in a 5,000-square-foot house,” he said. “If it’s so full that I’m filling a 5,000-square-foot house, something needs to be given away.”
(He’s got a point and inspired me. Buh-bye, I said to two bags of clothes.)
But not everyone uses self-storage as an above-ground landfill. Some users are like handyman Jeff Bloom, who does maintenance work on 300 rental houses. Bloom needs a big, organized place to store his tools, and his family (six kids, including four still at home) needed the garage space in their house near 192nd and Pacific Streets.
Bloom says the $118 monthly rate on his 10-by-18 storage unit is well worth having a safe and convenient place to keep all his tools. Bloom said he plans to be part of what Leise calls a growing demographic in self-storage users: a long-termer.
Self-storage can be a saving grace for people whose lives are in transition — in Karen Larsen’s case, a move. She and her husband, Paul, opposed the storage facility and were mad at the City of Omaha for, from her point of view, ignoring what residents had to say. She thought the planning board didn’t listen. Then they sold their house in nearby Skyline Ranches and had to be out right away, and, suddenly, the Larsens needed a temporary home for their stuff.
“It’s definitely egg on our face,” she said. “Here we are, we’re using it.”
But only for two more weeks. Then the couple will move to Utah.
The Gordons, too, had moved belongings into Extra Space because they were planning to move. Then plans changed. Inspired by Marie Kondo’s 2014 bestselling book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” and a Netflix documentary, “Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things,” the Gordons decided that they didn’t want all this stuff after all.
So there they were, in Unit 4219, sizing up the remains and deciding what to donate or sell. Items that fall into that last category will be available at their Windgate Ranch neighborhood sale June 15 and 16.
Then their stuff becomes ... someone else’s stuff.