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‘Catastrophe’ or ‘new era’? Mail shake-up at L.A. public housing complex alarms residents

Daisy Vega
Daisy Vega, president of the resident advisory council at the Mar Vista Gardens public housing complex.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Renters at the Mar Vista Gardens public housing complex were skeptical as Roderick Strong laid out the plan: Instead of getting mail delivered to their doors, residents would pick it up at new, centralized spots around the 43-acre community in Del Rey, a Los Angeles neighborhood west of Culver City.

Strong, the Culver City Post Office postmaster, called the new system “the launch of a new era.” He said the shift was being considered to ensure the safety of mail carriers who had been menaced by dog bites and other threats.

Few tenants seemed swayed, however, as they listened by phone and the web during a remote meeting on a recent weekday. Daisy Vega, president of the resident advisory council, asked Strong why such a change was being planned for their housing complex and not for “the other side of town.”

“They’re only doing it in an area for the poor,” Ground Game L.A. organizer José Estrada, who works with tenants at the complex, said in Spanish during a later interview, complaining that there had been no public analysis of the proposed change or consultation with the community. “And why now? Is it because the elections are coming?”

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U.S. Postal Service spokeswoman Evelina Ramirez said that there was no decision yet on when mail delivery might be changed at the Mar Vista Gardens complex and that such changes are made on a “case-by-case basis.”

The housing complex “has had numerous delivery and safety concerns for both customers and our postal employees,” Ramirez said. If the plan is adopted, there will be clusters of mailboxes or receptacles, as well as lockers for residents to get packages. Nine clusters were deemed adequate for the complex, Ramirez said.

Strong told Vega during the meeting that the Postal Service does not discriminate and that mail would continue to be delivered daily.

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Elderly people will obviously have to come outside, he said, but “the way we will centralize the boxes will be very convenient for all that live in Mar Vista Gardens.” The ultimate decision, he told residents, was up to him.

The possible change has worried tenants at the complex, who argued that it would harm seniors and disabled residents who rely on door-to-door delivery to pay their rent and get important documents.

Amid growing concerns about the Trump administration’s undermining the Postal Service to limit voting by mail, many are especially alarmed that the change could make it harder for poor residents of color to vote in the coming election. Mar Vista Gardens houses more than 1,800 low-income tenants, 95% of whom are Black or Latino, according to the city.

When asked about concerns about how the changes at Mar Vista Gardens would affect voting, Ramirez said the Postal Service was committed to delivering election mail in a timely manner.

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Postmaster Gen. Louis DeJoy recently announced that he was postponing controversial changes to the postal system until after election day to head off concerns, but Democrats have said they remain worried and want DeJoy to reverse changes that have already taken effect.

In an interview, Vega rejected the talk of dog bites as an excuse, saying that she believes the real reason is that “we have people here that vote as Democrats.” She also lamented that it has been harder to get out the word about the possible shake-up to residents at the 601-unit complex because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles, which oversees the Mar Vista Gardens complex, has also been skeptical.

Authority spokesman Eric Brown said that the safety issues raised by the postal services were unsubstantiated and that the agency had not provided any details to follow up on its claims of dog attacks and other safety issues.

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So far, Mar Vista Gardens is the only Housing Authority site targeted for such a change, Brown said; all but one of its public housing sites have door-to-door delivery. Brown added that the USPS had initially suggested 17 clusters of mailboxes spread over the 43-acre site, but had since scaled back its proposal to nine, “which will be a further impediment to our residents.”

Councilman Mike Bonin, who represents the area, contended in a July letter to Strong that centralizing mailboxes would expose seniors, disabled people and other vulnerable residents to “unnecessary public health risks.” His spokesman David Graham-Caso said the Del Rey complex was the only place in the council district where they were aware of such a change.

Several Mar Vista Gardens residents raised concerns about heading outside to get their mail amid the threat of the coronavirus. During the meeting with Strong, one resident who is blind and has an asthmatic child said in Spanish, “This is not the time for us to go outside.”

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María Alarcón, who has lived in Mar Vista Gardens for more than a decade and a half, cares at home for her ill husband and relies on the mail to get information about a potential transplant. During the pandemic, “his doctor said he can’t go anywhere because it could be fatal,” Alarcón said in Spanish.

Changing the mail delivery would be “a catastrophe,” she said.


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