Postal Service Cuts Off SRO Tenants; Defies State and Local Law

by Paul Hogarth on January 8, 2009

While a private mailbox is something apartment tenants take for granted, residential hotel (SRO) tenants have had to organize to win this right. In 2006, San Francisco passed the SRO Mailbox Ordinance – and since then, most non-profit residences have complied (although most private hotels are in violation.) In 2007, the legislature passed it at the state level. But the U.S. Postal Service (claiming federal preemption) now says they will cease delivering to individual mailboxes in SRO’s – except in hotels that installed them more than three months ago. This effectively shuts out tenants in the private-run SRO’s whose landlords have not complied with the law – ironically the same hotels with the worst habitability problems, the highest rates of vandalism and the most complaints of desk clerks stealing the mail. Landlords are being let “off the hook” because the law can’t be enforced, while the Postal Service – eager to cite their practice manual – won’t explain how their policies get changed. If we need a federal law requiring the Post Office to deliver mail to private hotel residents, SRO tenants will pursue that option. But that shouldn’t be necessary – as denying private mail delivery to SRO’s could violate federal equal protection.

19,000 San Franciscans live in the City’s residential hotels – the “housing of last resort” for people on the brink of homelessness. While conditions in the SRO’s have improved in recent years (no more visitor fees, sprinklers in hotel rooms), many tenants are still at the mercy of the desk clerk to get their mail. Residents often report lost Social Security checks, missed doctor’s appointments – or unreceived Christmas cards. The U.S. Postal Service has always been reluctant to deliver mail directly to hotel tenants, but in 2004 the Central City SRO Collaborative started organizing the neighborhood to demand private mail delivery.

The SRO Mailbox Ordinance – sponsored by San Francisco Supervisor Chris Daly and passed in April 2006 – was the main accomplishment of that effort. Landlords were given twelve months to install individual mailboxes in the hotel lobbies, after which point tenants could file a Rent Board petition to decrease their rent if the building was out of compliance. In 2007, California State Assemblywoman Julia Brownley introduced similar legislation at the state level that required residential hotels to install mailboxes “consistent with apartment housing.”

Today, the bulk of San Francisco’s non-profit residential hotels – run by the Tenderloin Housing Clinic (THC), Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation (TNDC), Community Housing Partnership (CHP) and others – have mailboxes, where tenants get their mail directly from the Post Office. The problem has been with private SRO’s – who have largely not complied (and who also tend to have the worst living conditions.) The Central City SRO Collaborative has helped tenants file Rent Board petitions for decrease in services, while City housing inspectors have cited these hotels for non-compliance.

But on December 22, I received an e-mail from a corporate spokesperson at the U.S. Postal Service. Their cooperation with the SRO Mailbox Ordinance, he said, had been “voluntary” – as it contradicted the Postal Service’s own regulations (as spelled out in the Domestic Mail Manual and the Postal Operations Manual) that appropriate delivery for hotels is “one-stop.” In other words, the Post Office is supposed to deliver mail to the hotel desk clerk – who then distributes it to tenants. Incredibly, their regulations do not distinguish between tourist hotels like the Marriott – and permanent residential hotels.

But here’s where it truly gets demeaning to SRO tenants. Due to “fiscal shortages,” he explained, the Postal Service would stop delivering mail to private mailboxes in SRO’s – except for the ones that have had such delivery for the past ninety days. Why 90 days? Because another Postal Service regulation says that if an “improper mode of delivery” is conducted, the service will be withdrawn “provided that the error is detected within 90 days. If the error is not detected within 90 days, the service will remain in place.”

So in other words, private mail delivery to individual SRO tenants was a “mistake” – but their own regulations compel them to continue providing mail service to some hotels (but not others.) The “fiscal shortages,” incidentally, may have something to do with a 2006 federal law that President George W. Bush signed – which requires the Postal Service to make a profit. With the recession hurting revenue, they have to make cuts. And cutting service to poor people is (politically speaking) a relatively painless way to save money.

While tenants in most non-profits SRO’s will keep getting private mail delivery, this decision is devastating to hotel tenants whose landlords never complied with the SRO Mailbox law when they were supposed to. The Department of Building Inspection is in limbo because they can’t pursue legal action against property owners unable to comply with the law – if the Post Office won’t add individual mail delivery to future buildings. Tenants can still file Rent Board petitions, but the ones I talk to aren’t really interested in getting a small rent reduction – they just want the dignity of having private mail delivery.

The U.S. Postal Service likes to quote their policies (which “preempt” state or local law), but so far they haven’t given me a straight answer about how those policies get revised or amended. Would this involve a simple bureaucratic fix? A regulation change their Board of Governors must approve? Or would it literally require an Act of Congress? When the Postal Service considered cutting Saturday mail service in rural areas to save money, Congress passed an appropriation that conditioned their funding on continued Saturday rural delivery. Our Congresswoman is Nancy Pelosi, which should help our cause.

But Randy Shaw, a longtime attorney and Executive Director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic (which publishes Beyond Chron) argues that legislative change may not be necessary. It’s a violation of federal equal protection to deny one level of mail service to a class of residents – while granting it to another when the “added burden” (a rational basis) is non-existent. “If a six-story Tenderloin SRO with no private mailboxes was torn down,” he explained, “and was replaced by a 30-story condominium project, you better believe the Post Office will deliver mail to the latter – even if it’s more of an added burden. What’s really going on here is that with more condos built in District 6, the Postal Service is overwhelmed.”

Because the Postal Service regulations frustrate both state and local law, City Attorney Dennis Herrera – and Attorney General Jerry Brown – should file a lawsuit in federal court to compel the U.S. Postal Service to deliver private mail. And if such an avenue does not succeed (my legal research shows a dearth of cases), federal legislative action is warranted. SRO tenants rely on getting the mail – something others take for granted.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Paul Hogarth is leading the Central City SRO Collaborative’s campaign on enforcing the SRO Mailbox Ordinance. Tenants who want to get involved should call him directly at (415) 771-9850, ext. 116

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