Remember that old children’s song, “The Mail Must Go Through”? It makes mail delivery sound like one of life’s few constants. Through rain or sleet or snow, the mail must go through. Unless, of course, you happen to live in one of downtown San Francisco’s Single Room Occupancy hotels (SRO’s). SRO’s are the city’s last refuge for thousands of low-income, elderly and disabled tenants. SRO’s are also at the center of city homeless programs, and living conditions have improved dramatically for San Francisco’s SRO residents in the past two decades. That’s what makes the problems with mail delivery to SRO tenants so frustrating.
Residents want their mail put in private mailboxes, but the San Francisco Postal Service has yet to deliver. A new coalition of managers, tenants and advocates is pressing the city’s postal service to change what it says is an unfair, discriminatory practice.
“I see it as typical redlining of low-income neighborhoods,” said Earl Brown, tenant organizer for the Central City SRO Collaborative. At a recent tenant convention, Brown said mail security and privacy was one of SRO residents’ top five issues. Right now, mail arrives en masse at the building’s front desk. Overworked desk clerks and distracted administrators are left to sort mail and distribute it. Mail frequently gets lost or delivered to the wrong person.
“When somebody’s living check to check, month to month and afraid of being homeless again, that’s why it’s such an important issue,” Brown said.
For Charles Maxwell, a resident at the Bayanihan House, post office refusal to deliver mail to individual boxes smacks of discrimination.
“We’re not second-class citizens. We’re not in a third-world country. Why is it if you live up on Nob Hill, they get their mail? Why can’t we? This isn’t a hotel. We all sign a one-year lease,” Maxwell said.
The problem, according to Robert Reed, manager of customer service operations for the San Francisco post office, is section 631.442 of the Postal Operation Manual. Reed said the post office cannot deliver mail to individual mailboxes in SRO buildings because they are classified as transient buildings, not permanent residences. However, section 631.442 of the manual says nothing about individual mailboxes, residential hotels or transient properties.
“There is a regulation in regards to delivering mail to ‘hotels,'” Reed said. After a May 5 meeting with the coalition, Reed agreed to handle requests for delivery to individual mailboxes on a case-by-case basis. SRO properties must submit copies of their business licenses and leases to Reed. Postal officials will then determine whether the property qualifies as permanent housing.
“We’re in the process of going through everything to make sure [SRO properties] qualify. As long as we’re in compliance with postal rules and regulations, we’re okay,” Reed said.
It’s progress, but managers like Magali Echevarria of Cadillac Hotel aren’t holding their breath yet. Echevarria said the Cadillac Hotel has had individual mailboxes sitting in its lobby for three years. The hotel even remodeled part of its lobby to accommodate the mailboxes. Echevarria estimates that the hotel has already spent $10,000 on the mailboxes, and they have yet to be used. Slated for improving resident life, that money could have gone to many other projects.
“Our tenants are permanent tenants and they don’t have the same rights. They have to go out and rent a mailbox, which is a stretch for most of them,” Echevarria said.
After years of waiting for resolution, managers and tenants banded together this spring to get the post office’s attention. Bayanihan House manager Marsha Jackson encouraged Charles Maxwell to start a petition. They now count 333 signatures from five SRO buildings in the Tenderloin and SOMA neighborhoods. Jackson and Maxwell brought the problem to the Central City SRO Collaborative.
Together, tenant organizers, managers and residents worked to secure meetings with post office officials. It wasn’t easy: Earl Brown said postal officials failed to return his calls or respond to repeated requests for meetings. Supervisor Chris Daly’s office got involved in April and managed to secure a meeting, but postal officials cancelled it at the last minute. Finally, Brown and several members of the coalition trekked all the way to the Evans Ave. post office and demanded attention. They got it.
“I think they would have continued to ignore us if we hadn’t shown up,” Brown said.
Tenants, managers and organizers like Brown know that getting results may take more prodding. But tenants like Maxwell are in for the long haul.
“If we don’t get any satisfaction this way, we’ll go to a higher level,” he said.