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E-commerce gains push warehouse vacancies to a low, rents to a record high

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Each year, America generates twice as much construction and demolition debris as it does household garbage. Now some of the salvage companies that keep these materials out of landfills are struggling. From member station WAMU in Washington, D.C., Jacob Fenston reports.

JACOB FENSTON, BYLINE: Some people are drawn to Community Forklift looking for a good deal.

VICTOR ETONGWA: My plumber said I should get this, so I came to get it from here. It's much cheaper.

FENSTON: Victor Etongwa was shopping for some faucet supply lines. Others come with creative ideas in mind.

SARAH ELLIOT: Every time I have a project, this is the first place I come.

FENSTON: Sarah Elliot was loading an old window she bought into her cargo bike. She's been here hundreds of times, she says.

ELLIOT: Everything just sort of has a story behind it. And it's got some age and some loveliness to it.

FENSTON: There's vintage furniture, used power tools, antique doorknobs and aisles of cabinets and carpet. Community Forklift opened in 2005. CEO Nancy Meyer says it was the brainchild of a group of local contractors and architects.

NANCY MEYER: They really wanted to divert materials from their jobs. And part of the problem was what to do with the materials after they save them.

FENSTON: The warehouse sits on about three acres just outside D.C. Recently, Meyer learned the landlord wants them out. Before the pandemic, finding a new warehouse wouldn't have been too much of a problem, Meyer says. But in 2022, it's a different story.

MEYER: Businesses like Amazon - they bought up a lot of the local warehouse space, of which there's not that much to begin with.

FENSTON: The explosion of e-commerce during the pandemic drove warehouse vacancy rates to an all-time low across the country, with rents at an all-time high. The demand for next-day delivery means companies need more warehouses closer to consumers.

GREG TRAINOR: It's just not possible for me to make it work anymore. The math doesn't work.

FENSTON: Greg Trainor, executive director of Philly Reclaim, a salvage business that shut down for good last month. His landlord is converting the warehouse to self-storage. When he looked for a new place, he says rents were as much as four times what he had been paying. He's frustrated that there just doesn't seem to be room anymore for a business like his.

TRAINOR: There are still entrepreneurs or people like myself who are trying to build or save or do physical work making things. And where are you supposed to go anymore? I don't know.

FENSTON: These relatively small salvage businesses reuse a staggering amount of material, playing an important role in the effort to cut down on waste. At Community Forklift last year, that included 8.2 miles of lumber, if you laid it out end to end. Also...

MEYER: Four hundred seventy-one toilets.

FENSTON: Three thousand, nine hundred ninety doors.

MEYER: One thousand, one hundred fourteen windows.

FENSTON: Meyer says it adds up to $45 million of material that's been repurposed instead of thrown out over the years. In addition to creating value by repurposing things, these salvage businesses also provide good jobs for people who might otherwise have trouble finding work. At Community Forklift, wages start at $17 an hour, with good benefits.

Store manager Raymond Stroud says the place gave him his life back.

RAYMOND STROUD: When I came in, I was in a homeless shelter. From working here, I have my own place now. I have - my vehicle - I own it.

FENSTON: Nancy Meyer is still optimistic Community Forklift will find a new space. People are counting on it.

Here's shopper Sarah Elliott when they told her the business is getting kicked out.

ELLIOT: No. No, no, no, no, no, no, no.

FENSTON: For NPR News, I'm Jacob Fenston in Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF TEEBS' "THE ENDLESS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jacob Fenston is WAMU’s environment reporter. In prior roles at WAMU, he was the founding producer of The Big Listen, interim managing producer of Metro Connection, and a news editor. His work has appeared on many national programs and has been recognized by regional and national awards. More importantly, his reporting has taken him and his microphone deep into muddy banks of the Anacostia River, into an enormous sewage tunnel, and hunting rats in infested alleys. His best story ever (as determined by himself) did not win any awards, even though it required recording audio while riding a bicycle the wrong way down the busy streets of Oakland, Calif.