None of us like to think of ourselves as discriminatory. But as self storage operators, the concept of discrimination has a deeper meaning than the one most people think of. Yes, discrimination in the context of a storage facility can still refer to racism, sexism, ageism and a number of other ugly -isms, but it can also exist in forms that are so subtle that you might not even be aware of them.
Overlooking discriminatory aspects of your self storage business can cost you money in legal fees and in lost revenue from tenants who no longer want to give you their business.
Here a four types of discriminatory business practices that your storage facility might not be addressing:
The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) was created to ensure that people with disabilities could still have access to apartments, restaurants, shopping, hotels and yes, storage units.
In fact, in 2012, the ADA introduced new regulations that specifically include self storage facilities alongside businesses that are required to accommodate individuals with disabilities. This requires storage facilities with 200 units or less to ensure that 5% of units are ADA compliant. Facilities with more than 200 units must have 10 ADA compliant storage units available, plus 2% of all units. For example, a facility with 400 storage units would have a total of 18 ADA compliant units. These units must be available in various sizes and styles, meaning that they can’t all be non climate-controlled 5x5 storage units. There should be larger and smaller units available with varying features.
Wondering if your storage facility is ADA compliant? Ask yourself the following questions:
Does your storage facility have a ramp leading to your office? What about elevators if you have multiple stories?
Do you have units with swinging or electric doors? An individual in a wheelchair will most likely not be able to use a roll top door, so this feature is crucial.
Do you have handicapped parking spaces available?
Do you have outdoor storage units with rain lips? These may interfere with ADA compliancy.
Because the ADA was established in 1992, some businesses that were built before then might not have to deal with strict regulations, but no matter how old your storage facility is, you can definitely count on being held to modern ADA standards should you renovate.
To make sure that you’re not inadvertently being discriminatory to individuals with disabilities, always hire an architect who understands ADA policies when doing construction. And in the meantime, be sure to brush up on ADA small business regulations for your own purposes.
Running background checks on prospective tenants and employees might sound like something that requires a lot of time and a lot of money, but if your facility is seeing an uptick in on-site crime, it could be worth the investment.
Working with a tenant screening company will make the task easier, and reassuring your tenants that you’re doing it for their protection will show them that you care about their safety. This might even earn you the reputation of being the most secure storage facility in town.
That’s all well and good until you consider the discrimination risk. If you decide to run background checks on your tenants but neglect to do so on all of your tenants, you run the risk of being hit with a discrimination lawsuit. It might seem cost-effective to skip the background check on that sweet old lady, but the savings will cost you in the long run.
The solution is simple: If you’re going to run background checks, you have to do it with every tenant.
Apply this same logic to all of your hiring, firing, leasing and even eviction practices. Anything that you require from one tenant or employee must be required from all of them. Even policies as simple as requiring two forms of ID matter, so don’t overlook them.
As anyone who has ever dealt with a customer trying to bring a pomeranian into a restaurant will tell you, service dogs are everywhere. And while not all of them are actually service dogs (more on that in a bit), they all deserve your consideration when they enter your storage facility.
The ADA defines a service dog as an animal “that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability.” The dog might help its owner pick things up, navigate the world without sight, detect low blood sugar or even remind them to take their medication.
An emotional support or therapy dog, on the other hand, while serving an important function, is not recognized as a service dog by the ADA due to the fact that they haven’t been trained to perform a specific task.
Some states require businesses to allow both service animals and therapy animals onto the property, so you should check your local and state guidelines. States may also differ in regards to whether they allow service animals that are in training in addition to fully trained dogs.
So how do you deal with them at your storage facility?
Here’s what you need to know. You cannot ask for documentation of the dog’s status as a service dog or proof of the person’s disability. You can only ask two things: 1) Is the dog a service animal? And 2) What task has it been trained to perform?
Be aware that the ADA does not require a service dog to wear any kind of special vest, so just because a dog doesn’t have that does not mean that it is not a service dog.
You are also not allowed to refuse a service animal based on breed, even if you’re living in an area that has breed restrictions (For example, pitbulls in Florida’s Dade County). However, if the dog has repeatedly demonstrated that it is dangerous to tenants at your storage facility, you may be able to refuse it so long as you find a way to make your self storage services available to the customer without the dog present.
If you discriminate against someone with a service animal, they will be able to file a complaint with the Department of Justice and they may also file a private lawsuit against you. The best course of action is to not ask questions when someone brings a service or therapy dog into your storage facility. They’ll have a better self storage experience and you won’t run the risk of being discriminatory.
Residential Management Housing
A storage facility in Bakersfield, California recently settled a discrimination case brought on by a former employee who accused them of violating California Department of Fair Employment and Housing regulations.
You might be asking, what does housing have to do with self storage? A storage facility isn’t an apartment complex!
But you’re forgetting on-site managers who live in company housing.
The Bakersfield case dealt with a former employee who was pregnant when living in the storage facility’s housing. The facility thought they had the right to ban the baby from company housing due to their belief that the Fair Employment and Housing rules didn’t apply to on-site lodging. The state disagreed with them, asserting that they were not allowed to ban children from employee housing. This would, in fact, make it difficult to for the parents to work at the storage facility while raising a child. They reached a settlement.
This case serves as an important reminder of another kind of discrimination that self storage operators should look out for. If your storage facility provides housing, you must always comply with housing regulations.
These vary from state to state, so read up on yours if you haven’t already.
What You Can Do
Awareness is the first step to avoiding discriminatory self storage practices, but taking action is just as important. Here are your next steps:
Train your employees on what discrimination is. Be thorough. Talk about how discrimination affects both tenants and employees. Discuss different scenarios. Ask your employees what two questions they can ask someone with a service dog. Be sure that they know what features they should point out when dealing with a tenant who is interested in an ADA compliant storage unit. Like all training, be sure to revisit this topic on a regular basis.
Consult with professionals who understand discrimination. If you’re remodeling or adding something to your storage facility, hire an architect who understands the ADA.
Install cameras. You should already have surveillance cameras in place as a way of making your facility more secure, but if you don’t, get some. They will also help you in the event of a discrimination lawsuit.
Reach out to nonprofit groups that deal with civil liberties and discrimination for more tips. They may even be willing to set up a workshop for your self storage team.
Taking the steps to eliminate discrimination will make your storage facility better in the end. You’ll be less likely to face costly lawsuits and you’ll feel good knowing that you run a storage facility that is open to all tenants. This will make your business a more welcoming one and as a result, a more successful one.