A federal judge in San Francisco has rejected a bid by the city and tenants’ groups to force the U.S. Postal Service to deliver letters to individual mailboxes at single-room-occupancy buildings.

There are nearly 500 low-rent single-room-occupancy, or SRO, buildings in San Francisco, according to court filings. They are sometimes called residential hotels. Most tenants are low-income and they typically share bathrooms and kitchens.

At about 300 of the buildings, the Postal Service delivers all residents’ mail to a single point, such as to a desk clerk, instead of sorting it and placing it in individual mailboxes.

The city and three housing rights groups claimed in a civil rights lawsuit in 2009 that the policy causes residents to lose crucial Social Security and welfare checks, medical information and personal letters when their mail is mislaid or stolen.

They argued the practice violates tenants’ constitutional rights of equal treatment and free speech.

But U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg rejected those claims in a ruling issued on Tuesday. He said the policy is within the Postal Service’s authority and is a reasonable way of saving money during a time of tight budgets.

“The U.S. Postal Service reasonably determined that it was most efficient to conserve valuable resources in a difficult economic period by continuing single-point delivery to SROs,” Seeborg wrote.

The Postal Service estimated that delivering to individual mailboxes would cost more than $2 million per year within San Francisco and more than $300 million nationwide.

In addition to the city of San Francisco, the groups suing the Postal Service were the San Francisco Tenants Union, Central City SRO Collaborative and Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco.

Jack Song, a spokesman for City Attorney Dennis Herrera, said the city is considering an appeal.

“We are disappointed in this ruling which denies the city’s most vulnerable residents a right to secure mail delivery that most residents take for granted,” Song said.

Song said the city will also ask the U.S. Postal Regulatory Commission, an agency that oversees the Postal Service, to change the practice.

James Wigdel, a spokesman for the Postal Service in San Francisco, said, “The Postal Service is pleased to receive the order,” but said he could not comment further because the service does not comment on pending litigation.

Julia Cheever, Bay City News

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