A federal appeals court is mulling a plea by the city of San Francisco and several tenants’ groups for a trial on a lawsuit that seeks to force the U.S. Postal Service to deliver letters to individual mailboxes in single-room-occupancy hotels.

“These are places where people live a long time, even though they pay the same way you would pay for a hotel,” tenants’ attorney Steffen Johnson argued before a panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco Tuesday.

The city and groups including the San Francisco Tenants Union are appealing a 2011 decision in which U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg dismissed their 2009 discrimination lawsuit without a trial.

The lawsuit claims the Postal Service treats single-room-occupancy, or SRO, hotel residents unfairly by delivering their mail to a single point, such as a desk clerk, instead of placing letters in individual mailboxes as it does in apartment buildings.

Units in SRO hotels are usually a single room of 350 square feet or less. The tenants are typically low-income. They usually share hallway kitchens and bathrooms and do not have leases.

City Attorney Dennis Herrera has estimated that San Francisco has about 30,000 SRO hotel residents and about two-thirds of them receive their mail through bulk delivery to a single point in their hotels.

The city and tenant groups say that procedure results in lost and stolen mail and “has created a host of terrible consequences,” such as loss of Social Security and welfare checks, missed notices of medical appointments and loss of contact with relatives.

The Postal Service contends it has a legitimate government objective in maintaining single-point deliveries in SFO hotels for reasons of efficiency and cost control.

“If these buildings were to be classified as apartments, it would impose onerous, unsustainable costs on the Postal Service,” Department of Justice attorney Lowell Sturgill argued Tuesday.

“The records show the Postal Service is in a dire (financial) crisis,” said Sturgill, who said abolishing single-point delivery in all SRO hotels nationwide would cost $300 million per year.

The government attorney argued delivering mail to individual boxes is more expensive in an SRO hotel than in an apartment building, because SRO tenants are allegedly more transient and thereby create instability and unpredictability in mailbox rosters.

Circuit Sandra Ikuta, Judges Jerome Farris and Fernando Fernandez took the case under submission after hearing 40 minutes of arguments and will issue a ruling at a later day.

Julia Cheever, Bay City News

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