Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Closing the digital divide among low-income public housing residents

by Mindy Ault, National Housing Conference 

Broadband Internet connectivity is a gateway to employment, education and opportunity for people in affordable housing, but far too many still lack access.  The NHC Connectivity Working Group brings together national advocates, developers, public housing authorities, lenders, investors and others to help close the gap in broadband connectivity. NHC’s Connectivity Working Group has compiled a set of policy recommendations meant to help in expanding in-home Internet access to lower-income households. Additionally, the Center for Housing Policy, NHC’s research division, has published a research brief on low-income renters and their lack of in-home Internet access.. Two recently published case studies  highlight the ways that two providers of affordable housing are extending free high-speed Internet access to their residents and working to close the digital divide.

Research shows that low-income households, particularly renters, are less likely to have Internet access or even a computer at home. As Internet access becomes increasingly necessary for daily activities and transactions, the digital divide becomes wider and more problematic for those lacking access. In Austin, Texas, the Housing Authority of the City of Austin (HACA) saw an opportunity when Google Fiber selected the city to install its fiber-optic broadband network. Through its Unlocking the Connection initiative, HACA’s nonprofit subsidiary, Austin Pathways, has created a partnership with Google Fiber and several local community organizations and private companies to provide free high-speed Internet access to HACA residents for 10 years. This includes providing computers and digital literacy classes to ensure that residents have the necessary tools to maximize the benefits of their broadband connections.

Meanwhile, in Fremont, Calif., affordable housing developer Eden Housing is providing free broadband Internet access to all 98 units in its Cottonwood Place property for low-income seniors.. Seniors in particular see a sharp divide between those who make use of the Internet and those who do not. A 2014 Pew Research study found that of seniors with an annual household income under $30,000, only 39 percent reported going online, compared to 90 percent of seniors with incomes over $75,000. This is important because we know that seniors receive significant benefits from having Internet access. Beyond the advantage of social interaction to combat the isolation that often comes with decreased mobility in older adults, studies have also shown that there are real health advantages to videoconferencing with health care providers. And in-home Internet access provides seniors with immediate access to interactive online tools that explain benefit programs like Social Security and Medicare.

It is our hope that in presenting these examples of how two affordable housing providers are working to bridge the connectivity gapwill start a discussion of how more housing organizations in more communities can implement similar programs to expand access to more lower-income households.

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