Herrera to File Suit Against Postal Service

by Paul Hogarth on April 17, 2009

City Attorney Dennis Herrera has taken the first step at suing the Post Office – for not delivering mail to residential hotel tenants. In a letter sent to the U.S. Postal Service yesterday, Herrera demanded the agency take “immediate steps to provide the same delivery services to SRO’s as it already provides to all other apartment buildings” by May 1st – or else they go to court. Private mail delivery is a right that apartment residents take for granted, but the Post Office has cut off San Francisco’s most vulnerable tenants. Despite state and local laws requiring residential hotels to install mailboxes in the lobby, the Postal Service treats SRO’s as if they were the Hilton – leaving tenants at the mercy of the desk clerk to sort their mail. Three months ago, the Post Office said it could not afford to deliver mail to SRO tenants and would stop private mail delivery – while the agency was buying mansions for its executives. As Herrera’s demand letter shows, however, it’s not just a question of perverse budget priorities – or defiance of local and state law. According to the Postal Service’s own rules, residential hotels should be treated like apartments.

Everyone knows the Postal Service has a revenue problem – and why it’s trying to cut costs. The Internet has dramatically changed how bills get paid, and the worst recession in decades has made everyone think twice before using the mail. When Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi proposed an “anti-junkmail” ordinance, postal workers came out to oppose it in droves – because they feared that a decreased mail volume would mean more layoffs.

But of all consumers to cut off mail service from, residential hotel tenants should be the last group denied. This is the population least likely to have telephone service, and the least likely to afford Internet access. As Dennis Herrera’s demand letter pointed out, “depriving them of reliable mail delivery sometimes removes their primary means of communication with healthcare providers, social service agencies, and loved ones.”

Not getting private mail delivery has real-life consequences for the City’s SRO hotel residents. Tenants often complain about getting their Social Security checks stolen, not getting notified about their Section 8 wait-list status, or missing doctors’ appointments because they didn’t receive the mailed notice. One tenant failed to get a notice from the Health Department that he tested positive for Hepatitis C – which had been mailed to his residential hotel. He found out a year later, after which it was no longer curable.

It’s easy for outsiders to think of SRO’s as “hotels,” but it’s permanent (albeit reluctant) housing for a population that cannot afford other options. In San Francisco, getting a Section 8 certificate is often the only means of transitioning out of a hotel. But due to the lack of a private mailbox, SRO tenants on the Section 8 waiting list never find out when their number gets called – until it’s too late. For the Postal Service to treat their home as not worthy of full delivery is a form of economic redlining – keeping tenants in a cycle.

After the City passed an ordinance requiring SRO’s to install private mailboxes, many landlords – mostly in the non-profit sector – complied, and the Postal Service has been delivering mail to tenants in those buildings. But private hotels (whose landlords are often less likely to comply with habitability standards) did not, and tenants continue to rely on the desk clerk to get their mail. Several months ago, I helped initiate a campaign at the Central City SRO Collaborative to put pressure on these hotels – through citations by Housing Inspectors, and organizing the tenants by filing Rent Board petitions.

It was then, for the first time, that the Postal Service cited its own regulations that it wasn’t supposed to deliver mail to SRO tenants, because “one-stop” delivery is the more appropriate mode. Hotels that installed mailboxes more than 90 days before the decision would keep getting private mail delivery, but all others would never have that luxury. The Postal Office also claimed – in a letter to the Department of Building Inspection –that San Francisco’s law passed “with no input from the Postal Service.” Which is not true, according to aides of Supervisor Chris Daly (who authored the local ordinance.)

But as Dennis Herrera’s demand letter said, the problem isn’t that the Postal Service has ignored state and local law – the Post Office is flouting its own rules and regulations. The Postal Operations Manual does say “one-stop” mail delivery is the proper mode for hotels, but it doesn’t define what constitutes a “hotel.” But Section 631.45 of the P.O.M. (the same manual they quote) requires individual mailbox delivery to “apartment houses” – and offers the following factors of what is an “apartment house”: (1) at least three units, (2) a common building entrance, (3) a common street address, (4) mailboxes approved by the Postal Service, (5) one mailbox per unit, and (6) mailboxes are in a central location.

If the landlord installs private mailboxes in the lobby, residential hotels fit all the criteria of an “apartment house” – and must be treated that way. “SRO’s are sometimes referred to as ‘hotels’ because they lack private kitchens and bathrooms,” wrote Herrera, but “they share nothing in common with the tourist establishments that provide housing to short-term visitors. Unlike hotels, SRO’s provide homes to residents who often stay for years or even decades. SRO’s are subject to rent control restrictions like other apartment buildings, and residents establish the rights of tenants under state and City law.”

The Postal Service has until May 1st to start delivering mail to individual SRO tenants. Otherwise, the City Attorney will file suit in federal court.

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