Dumpster diving 

John Berry noticed the problem almost as soon as he moved into the University House apartments last August. His subscription to Playboy magazine was noticeably absent each month even though the bill managed to find its way to his mailbox. That told Berry one thing: The magazine's publisher knew where he lived even as the magazine went undelivered.

Berry, a sophomore business major at UCF, lodged a complaint with University House's management, but the complaint quickly turned into an argument, he says, when a manager told him the apartment complex's employees were unhappy that they -- not the post office -- were tasked with sorting the mail.

Berry soon learned that he wasn't the only one dissatisfied with University House's mail delivery. His three roommates were also complaining of the financial-aid checks, FedEx packages and letters from home they hadn't received -- or that were delayed weeks from their postmarked date. "I don't even get mail sent here anymore," says Matt Sarantos, a junior biology major who rooms with Berry.

The roommates took their complaint to the university's Legal Services, the Orange County Sheriff's Office and finally the Union Park post office, but no one, they say, was willing to help. University House, a compound of two-story, red-brick buildings that house 896 residents in 224 apartments, is one of a dozen complexes in the UCF area where the U.S. Postal Service delivers mail to the front desk, and apartment employees sort mail into residents' boxes. Apartment complexes can sign up with the post office for "single-point" delivery if they lease per room instead of per apartment. According to postal policy, single-point apartment managers can throw away bulk-rate mail if apartment numbers aren't provided or if the tenant has moved without a forwarding address. "That's what we would do with it," says Linda Walker, spokeswoman for the Postal Inspection Service.

Post-office managers told Berry and his roommates that they had to prove mail was illegally thrown away. On March 27, they thought they found evidence. When Sarantos went to check his mail, he saw one of University House's employees loading three crates of mail onto a golf cart. Sarantos was curious as to where the employee was taking the mail, so he peeked his head around the corner to witness the employee dumping the crates into a gray Dumpster.

Sarantos went back to his apartment, grabbed a roommate's digital camera and fired off pictures of the Dumpster. They reveal loads of U.S. mail piled next to a mattress and a black garbage bag. A videotape, Orlando Sentinel bill, Columbia House mailer and UCF letter are among the items.

Sarantos also hauled a bundle of Victoria's Secret catalogues still enclosed in cellophane. The catalogues have current residents' names and complete addresses; one of the catalogues was addressed to one of Sarantos' roommates. "The seal wasn't even cracked open," Berry says.

Yet when the roommates took the evidence to the Union Park post office, they got nowhere. "The post office sent us a questionnaire in the mail," Berry says. "But it didn't have anything to do with the problem."

Several weeks ago, Berry's mother notified the postal service about her son's problem through an official post-office website. Within a day, Orlando postal inspector Jan Moore contacted Lisa Berry, saying she would launch an investigation. "I am disgusted and frustrated with that apartment complex," Lisa Berry says. "But things seem to be moving along now that we've found the right person to speak with."

But Linda Walker, the postal inspector's spokeswoman, says the pictures aren't enough evidence to prosecute University House employees. "We don't know what is there or how it got there," Walker says. "We hope they do understand that if something arises in the future to contact the inspection service immediately. Don't snap a couple of pictures. We need to recover the mail in question."

Students also were having trouble with University House's parking arrangements. The complex's corporate owner, First Worthing, installed carports over some parking spaces, charging an additional $20. But the new system made cramped parking conditions even worse.

Several renters, including Berry's roommate Lindsay Strong, were so fed up they used window chalk to write anti-University House messages on their cars' rear windows. University House management took offense, commissioning a tow-truck driver to haul them away.

Students quickly erased the messages. "I don't have the money to pay for a tow truck," said Courtney Coleman, whose Ford Tempo warned, "Don't live at University House."

University House manager Tara Hicks acknowledges problems with mail and parking. But she says she is trapped because the postal service won't train her employees or change the delivery system so that she no longer has the responsibility. "This has been a long running battle with the post office," she says.

"We get plenty of complaints, almost daily," she continues. "But it's the same thing at all other student housing."

Hicks, who graduated from UCF last summer, says she tries to provide oversight to University House employees who sort mail, but the distractions of student housing constantly tear her away. "It's hardly on the list of No. 1 priorities," she says. "It's not fair for us to have to do someone else's job."

She shares the frustration of residents over the parking arrangements, but says there's nothing she can do since corporate offices in Dallas authorized the covered parking spots. She says students exacerbate the problem by inviting up to 15 visitors per apartment on any given night.

The towing incident began, she says, when a male resident became angry he'd been towed from a carport parking spot. So he parked his car with the message "University House sucks" in front of the complex's model apartment and handed out fliers telling potential renters to spurn University House. That's when Hicks decided to start towing. "They have the freedom to say what they want to say, but we don't have to put up with that," she says.

Hicks says students are often their own worst enemies, because of the tone they adopt when trying to reconcile differences. "Unfortunately, a lot of people are just coming out of their parents' houses," she says. "They talk to people however they want. They come at us screaming and cursing instead of handling things in a mature way."

Berry, though, says it is University House management that is often reactionary, making excuses for what he considers poor service. That will change soon, he says. He's already made plans to move into a house in the fall where he hopes to enjoy the simple basics of life. "I'm looking forward to getting a postman next year," he says. "I'll bake him cookies."


More by William Dean Hinton


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