What’s fair is fair: Amazon customers get delivery on Sunday, SRO residents get none at all


While the news this week has been dominated by rave reviews for the Postal Service's announcement that it will deliver packages on Sunday to Amazon Prime customers (who pay $79 a year for the privilege), there’s another story going on about residents of single room occupancy (SRO) buildings who are fighting just to get their mail delivered at all.  The Postal Service says they’re transients, and it’s up to management to put the mail in their boxes.  The City of San Francisco is fighting the USPS policy in the courts, and last week the City appealed an earlier decision that went against the SROs.

There’s a law against discriminating against users of the mail.  39 U.S.C. 403(c) reads as follows:

“In providing services and in establishing classifications, rates, and fees under this title, the Postal Service shall not, except as specifically authorized in this title, make any undue or unreasonable discrimination among users of the mails, nor shall it grant any undue or unreasonable preferences to any such user.”

The Postal Service is going to deliver Amazon packages on Sundays only to customers who live in New York and Los Angeles; eventually the program will encompass a few other big cities like Dallas, Houston, and New Orleans.  That seems like it would discriminate against people who live everywhere else, particularly the residents of rural America, who will probably never get Sunday delivery, no matter how successful the program turns out to be.  The USPS-Amazon deal will also hurt brick-and-mortar retailers (who are also users of the mail), and it may also discriminate against businesses that won’t enjoy Sunday delivery, like e-Bay and other mail-order retailers.

But the SRO story is about another kind of discrimination.  SRO tenants are typically economically disadvantaged, often seniors and individuals with disabilities — the kind of people who don’t have access to the Internet and who are most reliant on the mail.  They’re not waiting for the new i-Pad they ordered on Amazon to show up in their mailbox.  They’re waiting for their Social Security checks, prescription drugs, and food stamps.

So it's not very reassuring for SRO tenants to see their mail dumped in a pile on the desk of the SRO manager for “last mile" delivery.  They worry about mail getting lost or delayed, and there have also been complaints that SRO building managers have harassed residents based on information gathered by looking at their mail.  

When the City of San Francisco took the Postal Service to court over the Postal Service’s refusal to deliver the mail, the agency argued that SRO tenants are transients and too difficult to keep track of, SRO buildings are a type of hotel, and distributing the mail is the responsibility of the SRO’s management.  A big issue in the case was also the Postal Service’s argument that if it were required to deliver to each resident’s box, the costs would be “onerous” and “unsustainable.”

In October 2011, U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg dismissed the suit, largely because of the financial issue.  In his ruling Judge Seeborg noted that Congress had made it clear that the Postal Service “was to run as a self-sufficient business” and the agency had “reasonably determined that it was most efficient to conserve valuable resources in a difficult economic period by continuing single-point delivery to SROs.”

The City of San Francisco is arguing that the Postal Service is discriminating against SRO residents, who are really more like apartment dwellers than hotel transients.  While they may not sign long-term leases or pay security deposits like those who rent typical apartments, they aren’t guests of a hotel — they pay monthly and have tenants’ rights. 

During the oral arguments over the appeal last week, the panel of judges hearing the case didn’t seem very sympathetic to the city’s case.  One of the judges, Joseph Jerome Farris, continuously referred to the tenants as “transients” (which they deeply resent), and he suggested that SRO tenants can check in one day and out the next (which they can’t).

When the city’s attorney pointed that SRO tenants rely more heavily on the Postal Service for Social Security checks, medicines, and other forms of public assistance, Judge Farris asked, “Is there any prohibition against a person in an SRO who knows he is expecting important mail from renting a post office box?”

That rather insensitive response prompted Beyond Chron, the city's alternative online newspaper, to point out that while SRO tenants typically receive $64 or $104 in general assistance, Judge Farris was once fined $500,000 by the City of Seattle for illegally cutting down 120 trees in a public park.

It will take two or three months for the court of appeals to issue a decision. Judging by the judges’ questions during oral arguments, the outlook doesn’t look very bright for SRO tenants.  It’s a lot brighter for Amazon Prime customers this holiday season.  They can look forward to getting their Christmas purchase delivered any day of the week, even on a Sunday.

If you're interested in reading more about the SRO case, here are some of the court documents: