| City Attorney Takes Legal Action Against U.S. Postal Service
By Jonathan Farrell Jun 13, 2009
This past May, City Attorney Dennis Herrera took legal actions against the United States Postal Service for refusing to ensure proper delivery of mail to Single Residency Occupancy Hotels in San Francisco.
Tenants of SRO hotels throughout the City have complained that their mail is often misplaced, tampered with or stolen because the USPS will not take the basic steps to ensure mail is placed securely in each individual mailbox.
As it is now, mail delivery to a SRO hotel is simply left at the front desk or in the hands of the hotel’s owner or staff clerk.
“Should a desk clerk control who gets their mail?” Jeff Buckley, director of the Central City SRO Collaborative asked this question as he talked to the Mission Dispatch about this on-going and menacing problem.
“We didn’t think much of this at first, considering it isolated incidents,” said Buckley. “But it kept growing,” he added.
He noted that this is not simply incompetence or negligence. “It is a violation of privacy,” he said. “This is why we and other groups galvanized to have a City ordinance established to protect SRO mail with a locking mailbox for each individual SRO resident,” said Buckley.
In 2006, the City enacted the Residential Hotel Mail Receptacle Ordinance in response to concerns that tenants at SROs were not receiving their mail in a safe, secure and timely manner. The ordinance requires SRO owners to make arrangements with the U.S. Postal Service for the installation of approved receptacles for mail delivery.
However, the City Attorney’s Office said, a December 18, 2008 letter from San Francisco Postmaster Noemi Luna informed the San Francisco Department of Building Inspection that the U.S. Postal Service would no longer deliver mail to individual mail receptacles in SROs. The letter cited fiscal shortages that required service cut backs.
Yet Buckley explained that despite this City ordinance that was enacted, “the USPS continues to set up obstacles.” “They give various reasons as to why they will not have the mail carrier take the time to place mail into each individual mailbox,” said Buckley.
According to Postmaster Luna's interpretation, mail delivery to individual SRO residents was contrary to USPS regulations. Federal law preempted the City’s ordinance. It is preempted to the extent it attempts to frustrate or interfere with postal service operations. Herrera will continue to challenge this policy. This past April Herrera sent a formal demand letter to the U.S. Attorney's Office outlining the bases for his intended lawsuit against the U.S. Postal Service for unconstitutionally depriving tenants of single room occupancy hotels, or SROs, equal and adequate mail delivery in San Francisco.
“We are challenging the USPS policy because mail delivery to SRO hotels is no different than mail delivered to an apartment building or condominium complex,” said Carol Steuart an attorney at Herrera’s office.
In his five-page letter, which was requested in advance of litigation by Deputy Chief of the U.S. Attorney's Civil Division Andrew Y.S. Cheng, Herrera set a two-week deadline. Herrera asked for the postal service to bring its mail delivery policy at SROs into conformance with that for other residential apartment buildings, as required by postal regulations.
So far, no formal response has been given. Herrera then filed a formal legal suit in Federal court on May 1, 2009. This was to challenge a new legal interpretation by the San Francisco postmaster that directs local letter carriers to drop unsecured mail for SRO residents near building entryways and at front desks instead of delivering it to individual locked boxes.
"Mail service is not a privilege for the wealthy, and the San Francisco Postmaster's decision to cut costs by treating SRO tenants differently than other City residents is unfair and cruel," Herrera said. "When an economically vulnerable population is deprived of reliable mail delivery, the results can be devastating.”
Steuart, who coordinates investigations for the City Attorney’s Office noted that “this issue is critical because it means people are not getting their mail.” While there are over 500 SRO hotels in San Francisco half of the City’s SROs are in the Mission District. “This problem is huge in the Mission,” she added. People at SRO’s rely upon the mail as their primary source of communication because they do not have a phone or computer.
“My office's investigation has documented heart-rending hardships to SRO residents because of undelivered checks, medical notices, appointment information, personal letters and official correspondence,” said Herrera.
Buckley agreed as he said, he knew of a situation in which a SRO resident was relying on important medical test results to arrive in the mail from SF General Hospital. “It took over a year for SF General to locate him and by that time the condition of the illness was serious,” said Buckley.
Herrera and his staff held a press conference on May 5th at the Coast Hotel on O’Farrell Street to call attention to this problem. “There is no basis in the law or in postal regulations for this discriminatory practice, and I'm confident the federal courts will agree,” said Herrera.
Jerry Jarvis a SRO hotel resident for over 10 years told the Mission Dispatch, “My landlord ignores everything, doesn’t bother to make sure mail is delivered.” Jarvis said that “it varies from manager to manager, we have no boxes, mail gets handed to the manager’s desk,” he said.
“There have been times my mail was flat out opened, blatantly,” said Jarvis. He mentioned several instances where he had to request to have paychecks reissued because they were misplaced or never arrived. “Now I have a post office box,” he said. “If it is important I ask that it be sent to my post office box, to make sure I get it,” Jarvis added.
Jorge Portillo of the Mission SRO Collaborative said “this problem merits great attention.” The Mission SRO Collaborative serves over 2,000 residents at 55 SRO hotels in the Mission. The average resident at a SRO is low income, elderly or a migrant worker.
He referred to the USPS refusal to deliver mail to individual mailboxes at SRO hotels a “blatant form of discrimination of the poor.”
Raymond Smith also a SRO hotel resident agreed as he thought it an insult. Smith considers it to be a form of “inhumane treatment on the part of the USPS.” Smith said he had not encountered any of the problems at his hotel. But noted he is well aware of the issue through his advocacy work helping others in worse circumstances. He did tell the Mission Dispatch he maintains a post office box for receiving important mail.
“I am encouraged that the U.S. Attorney's Office has requested a preliminary demand letter in advance of our lawsuit,” Herrera told the press. “And I hope that SRO tenants here in San Francisco will soon get the mail service to which they are entitled without the need for litigation,” Herrera said.
For more information about the City Attorney’s efforts to safeguard mail deliver to SRO hotels in San Francisco visit: http://www.sfgov.org/cityattorney/ or call: (415) 554-4700.
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