When home sweet home is a storage unit

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When home sweet home is a storage unit
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For $59 a month, it doesnt look like much of a home.

Theres an exposed light bulb hanging from the ceiling, two sheet-metal walls on each side and hard concrete for the floor and ceiling. The four oversized buildings of Holly Hill Self Storage at 7116 Richmond Highway is all unpainted industrial cinderblock. The nicer units are climate-controlled, which means less than 80 degrees in summer and higher than 60 degrees in winter.

This is where an up-and-coming grunge band keeps their electric guitars and speakers and pulls them out for weekend gigs. Its also where eBay Power Sellers store their merchandise before shipping it out, where landscaping businesses store their lawn mowers and local restaurants store unused banquet tables.

Its also a place where several Foreign Service officers store home furnishings while posted overseas, or members of the military serving in Iraq or Afghanistan store their belongings. Hopefully theyll come back alive to collect their stuff, said manager Chip Willits, who lives in an apartment above the units.

Once a month, government checks for storage payment arrive, bundled in official State Department or Pentagon envelopes. A high-ranking U.S. Army officer stores his cherished vintage Mercedes Benz here, and another man rented a larger 15×35 unit (about $400 per month) for three years just so hed have a place to restore his vintage VW Bug on weekends. Real estate is at a premium around here, Willits said. They may be living in an apartment where they cant build a garage. 

Years ago, the founder of a well-known nationally-distributed magazine locked up his life belongings at Holly Hill after suffering a psychological disorder. His sister comes at the beginning of every month and pays the rental fee. We get our share here, said Denny Fitzgerald, Holly Hills groundskeeper. Weve seen every type at least once.

Like their famous one-time occupant Edwin, a Tutsi tribesman who had fled the ethnic cleansing by the Hutus in Rwanda. A real peaceful, kind fella, Willits recalled. There was a lot of clicking and grunting coming from his unit, which we figured out is how his tribe communicates.

My mom said I should write a book about all the characters who come through here, said Sue Laufer, Holly Hills office manager.

In the book, Laufer, Willits and Fitzgerald might want to write the story of Frank, a 72-year-old framing specialist who spent six years in The White House glass shop framing the official grip-and-grin photos of President and Mrs. Clinton. He now uses one of the storage units as his studio. When he comes up short on the monthly storage fee, as he often does, Willits once accepted in lieu of payment one of those personally autographed Bill and Hillary Clinton photos, posing with Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat on the South Lawn.

Then theres Edgar, a guy in his late 50s who purportedly held a Bachelors degree in Psychology and at one time in life had a white-collar professional job. Down on his luck, his life savings depleted and his wife having left him, Edgars new home became a 5×10 climate-controlled unit which he dutifully paid $119 every month. He sounded like he was successful at one point, but he lost everything after he said that he had become addicted to crack, Willits recalled. Wed see him push his grocery cart out the front gate every morning at 6 am to go pick up cans, then hed head over to the Elks Lodge across the street to get a free meal.

In the four years he has worked at Holly Hill, Willits said that between 15-20 people have made it their home, usually renting out the units, which cost between $59 and $119 per month. Lately, given the challenges of a slower economy, the incidences of homeless decamping to Holly Hill have increased, Willits said.

All new renters are required to sign a contract that they will not live in the units, but inevitably some do, hauling in Bunsen burners to cook, sleeping bags, fans, electric heaters, steel coolers and camp furniture. When they fill out the paperwork I try to get the content of the character, Willits said. But some people know how to hide it really well.

Some of renters hes misjudged have been in and out of prison, crack houses and the like, and arrive at Holly Hill and immediately start making trouble. I get dragged into a lot of stuff, Willits said. Its like going into a bar and talking to drunks about the weather…Its always drugs or alcohol which brought them here. All they say is the lie.

When Willits discovers that a homeless person is living at Holly Hill, he inevitably throws them out and then goes in and cleans out their units. Between the usual stuff like soiled sleeping bags and discarded clothes, hell also find old photos of happier times, of friends and family, military service and even children. In one unit he discovered an air ionizer; the unit-holder had been using it to disguise the fact that he had been smoking crack in the unit.

Most of the homeless are mentally ill, Willits said. One of the things I usually find are diaries, lots and lots of pads of paper filled with longhand of whatever was going through their heads at the time, he said. Some of its beautiful, but most of it makes no sense.

The self-storage industry was nearly non-existent three decades ago, but these days theyre nearly ubiquitous, with 51,000 facilities nationwide and about two dozen in Alexandria alone. While the economy may be faltering, places like Holly Hill are flourishing. We have 520 units here and were about 85 percent full, Laufer said. Most of our outside units are sold, and all of our $400 units are rented. Were doing well.

Laufer said the mortgage crisis is one reason. A number of the larger units were recently rented by families who lost their homes to foreclosure. The banks took everything but their clothes and their furniture, she said. Those ended up here.
But some homeowners who could not keep up with their mortgages cant keep up with their storage bills either, and on some weekends storage companies like Holly Hill are auctioning off their abandoned property for a mere pittance. 

On any given weekend, auctioneers show up at any one of Alexandrias storage centers to offer to the highest bidder the trappings of one familys life: a couch, a television set, a sewing machine, a fish tank, a washer and dryer and lots and lots of stored Christmas wrapping paper. The bidders are usually sparse, and often an entire house can fetch between $150 and $300.

By law we must advertise the Public Notice of Auction, Laufer said. We have one coming up this Wednesday. It appears like its their entire house inside.

After the auction is over, John Mehr, who owns Holly Hill with his son Steve, often appears to sweep up, taking the remains to a landfill in his pickup truck. Mehr, at the age of 80, shows up at Holly Hill nearly every day to change light bulbs, pick up trash and tend the small garden.

Mehr also has been known to help Willits and Fitzgerald shoo away the squatters. Such as recently when two homeless people pooled their resources and splurged on a 10×10 unit, which is about a 100 feet in diameter and costs $189 a month to rent. They had move in with their bed rolls and a couch, and had run electricity out of the light sockets, he said. I was showing a unit one day and the lock was unlatched, so I peeked in. They were inside on the couch watching TV.

Most of the homeless people living at Holly Hill know how to fly under the radar, slipping out of Holly Hill at 6 a.m. when the front gate unlocks and then returning by 10 p.m., when the
front gate re-locks.

After several visits to Holly Hill by this reporter to locate and interview a homeless person there, last Saturday afternoon one finally appeared. Bobby is homeless, said he lives in a shelter, and said he stores his clothing and personal effects in a climate-controlled 5×5 unit at Holly Hill, for which he pays $49 per month. Its real convenient, he said. Its not safe to hang out or keep my stuff at the shelter, so I come here. 

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