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Oral Arguments in Single Resident Occupancy Mail Delivery Dispute

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By William Peacock, Esq. on November 07, 2013 8:55 AM

They are called Single Resident Occupancy (SRO) buildings. Many of them have the word "hotel" plastered on the front of the building, yet nearly all of them are occupied by the City of San Francisco's most needy: low-income working poor and older and disabled residents. And despite their long-term occupancy, and the city's prior orders to provide individual mailboxes to each of these units, the United States Post Office is refusing to do anything more than deliver building-by-building, as it classifies these buildings as temporary accommodations.

Where is the line between transient hotel-like housing and apartments? And should the USPS be required to provide individual mail delivery to SRO, who live in these long-term, yet hotel-like units?

The problem seems to stem from the fact that no one knows exactly how to classify these types of residences. The signs say "hotel," but the buildings aren't assessed hotel taxes, which are reserved for tourist-type places. Though no deposit or long-term commitment is required, many of the low-income month-to-month residents live there far longer, at an average of three years, according to BeyondChron.

Basically, they fill the gap in low-income housing left by the lack of development and rising rental rates in San Francisco. According to a 2007 article in the San Francisco Chronicle, about 30,000 San Franciscans (4 percent of the population) live in more than 500 SRO hotels, many of whom are on federal or state assistance. They describe the conditions of many of the units in less-than-flattering terms:

"[R]esidents pay $600 to $1,000 a month for an 8-by-10-foot room in buildings where the smell of human waste infuses the hallways from overflowing toilets; floors gather puddles from leaky pipes and ceilings; carpets go unchanged for decades; and rooms are infested with bedbugs, cockroaches and mice. Residents share dormitory-style toilets and showers, typically one or two per floor, and there are no cooking facilities."

Recognizing that these were long-term housing solutions for many, the city passed an ordinance in 2006 that required SROs to install individual mailboxes. Two years later, about half had complied before the USPS claimed that individual delivery was cost-prohibitive and switched to single-point delivery (dumping the building's mail in a pile) for buildings that had not added mailboxes by 2008. Two-thirds of SRO residents get their mail by single-point delivery.

The city and the Tenderloin Housing Clinic brought suit to force the USPS to deliver mail unit-by-unit, but lost in 2011. Yesterday's oral arguments in the Ninth Circuit, which are available online, reflected the confusion in classifying these semi-temporary, semi-hotel, semi-transient units.

Ninth Circuit Judge Farris repeatedly referred to the residents as "transients," pointed out that they can "check in and check out" as they please, and downplayed an expert's opinion on comparative move-out rates between SROs and other dwellings, reports BeyondChron.

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