In a harsh rebuke against residential hotel tenants who the U.S. Postal Service has treated like second-class citizens for decades, an Obama-appointed Judge yesterday threw out the San Francisco City Attorney’s lawsuit on mail delivery in SRO’s. U.S. District Court Judge Richard Seeborg granted summary judgment to the Postal Service in a 22-page decision – denying all First Amendment, right to privacy and discrimination claims that were raised. The Postal Service must be given wide latitude at cutting costs because the 2006 federal law mandates self-sufficiency, he wrote. The Postal Service is “powerless” at preventing third parties (i.e., desk clerks) from rifling through an SRO tenant’s mail, and has a “rational basis” for treating apartments and SRO’s differently when delivering mail. While infuriating, Judge Seeborg’s decision is not altogether surprising. Outside of the Tenderloin, most people have no real understanding of SRO tenants – or comprehend that living in a “hotel” permanently is not akin to staying at the Hilton. And as courts fail to view class discrimination the way that they view race, gender or religion, worthy cases such as this one will always face an uphill battle in our judicial process.
San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera filed suit against the U.S. Postal Service in early 2009
– after we were informed that, despite the City passing a law in 2006 requiring SRO landlords to install mailboxes, the Post Office would not deliver
to such boxes. SRO’s are “hotels,” said the Postal Service, and the “appropriate” mode of delivery is to simply drop it off in bulk at the front desk – rather than sort it for individual tenants. That right, they said, only belongs to residents living in condos or apartments.
In his decision, Judge Seeborg agreed. Receiving mail is a First Amendment right, but the Postal Service is allowed to make restrictions on mode of delivery – if the restrictions are deemed to be “reasonable.” And the Post Office’s fiscal shortages are such a factor. “The USPS needs not cater to the needs of individualized communities or citizens,” he wrote, “but must focus on creating an effective national postal system. Due to its Congressional mandate for efficiency, courts have long held that it is reasonable for the USPS to restrict mail access based on ‘inefficiencies’ or ‘increased costs.’” In other words, SRO tenants are a quaint constituency who must give way to budget realities.
While the Post Office’s financial woes are well publicized, contrary to public misconception it is not an inevitable result of the Internet. In fact, the USPS’ most profitable year
was 2006 – long after most consumers had started to pay their bills online. The real culprit was an Act of Congress in December 2006, signed by President George W. Bush, that required the Postal Service to make a profit. All of a sudden, the Post Office faced a fiscal catastrophe – and corners had to be cut in its less profitable enterprises.
“USPS has no problem adding mail delivery service to the thousands of condo units that were built over the last decade in this city,” said Jeff Buckley of the Central City SRO Collaborative yesterday, when hearing the news that the lawsuit was thrown out. “But it cries poverty when it has to add mail service to SRO residents.”
Judge Seeborg also gave short shrift to the City’s claim that the Postal Service violated equal protection, but the plaintiffs had a tougher hill to climb on that question. No doubt, discriminating against SRO tenants while delivering mail to individual condo owners is classist – but socio-economic status is not a “protected class” in this country. While laws or government actions that discriminate against race, gender or religion must pass strict scrutiny, practices that adversely affect poor people must only have a “rational basis.” And the Postal Service’s claim that SRO’s are different, said the Judge, was apparently rational.
Perhaps the most baffling and ironic distinction made in the decision between apartments and SRO’s was that San Francisco has a Uniform SRO Visitor Policy. Apparently, the fact that the City passed a law giving SRO tenants the right to have visitors – a right that apartment tenants take for granted – means that SRO hotels are not apartment buildings, and therefore the Post Office is justified at delivering mail differently. But like the fight for proper mail delivery in SRO’s, the Uniform Visitor Policy was passed in the spirit that SRO tenants have the same rights as their middle-class counterparts in apartments.
Finally, Judge Seeborg rejected the City’s “right to privacy” claims – with logic that only Joseph Heller, the author of Catch 22
, would have loved. Recipients do have the right to not have their mail tampered with, he wrote, but it’s only a constitutional violation if the Postal Service does it. If a desk clerk rifled an SRO tenant’s mail because the Post Office dumped a pile of mail at the front desk, it’s the “actions of an independent third party” and the U.S. Postal Service is thus “powerless” to do anything about it.
That hit a little too close to home. Way back in 2000 when I was a community organizer for the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, I heard allegations from a private SRO tenant that their mail was being tampered with by the landlord. Knowing it was a federal crime, I called the Postal Service Inspectors to file a complaint. The Post Office told me that because the SRO was a “Hotel,” they considered their job done once the mail was dumped at the front desk. It was precisely that kind of response, and that kind of insensitivity to the needs of SRO tenants, which triggered our fight for real mailbox service.
In 2004, the late Jeoflin Roh
– an SRO tenant who had worked with the Central City SRO Collaborative – approached our staff, and said this was an issue they needed to work on. After organizing SRO tenants and making numerous trips to the Post Office Headquarters in Bayview when their calls were unreturned, we were able to get the Board of Supervisors to pass a SRO Mailbox Ordinance
in 2006 – requiring all SRO landlords to install mailboxes within a year. Many landlords began to install them, but by late 2008 the Collaborative stepped up an enforcement campaign to bring scofflaw SRO landlords into compliance.
It was December 2008, when the U.S. Postal Service announced that – due to their fiscal woes, they would cease delivering mail to individual SRO tenants, instead leaving it in bulk for desk clerks to sort through. Barack Obama had just been elected President, our Congresswoman was Speaker of the House, and there was as sense of optimism in the air about the future. If the City Attorney sued the Post Office, we believed that a Democratic Administration would be sympathetic. Unfortunately, that has not turned out to be true.
And now, an Obama-appointed Federal Judge has thrown out the City Attorney’s suit.