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Addressing the Digital Divide: Technology Access in Affordable Housing

Community Development
Addressing the Digital Divide: Technology Access in Affordable Housing

Bridging the Gap, One Home at a Time

It’s no secret that technology has become an integral part of our daily lives. From checking emails to attending virtual doctor’s appointments, the internet has become the backbone of modern society. Unfortunately, a stark divide exists when it comes to technology access, and the affordable housing community is disproportionately affected.

Imagine trying to apply for a job without a reliable internet connection. Or having to choose between paying the rent or keeping your family connected. This is the reality for millions of Americans living in affordable housing. But fear not, my friends – there’s hope on the horizon.

Uncovering the Digital Divide

The numbers are staggering. According to a recent study, nearly 23% of all U.S. households don’t have access to high-speed broadband. And the situation is even worse in affordable housing, where about one-third of residents lack home internet access. That’s 80% of them who are unconnected simply because they can’t afford it.

It’s a problem that has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. As we’ve shifted more of our daily lives online, from work and school to healthcare and social connections, those without reliable internet access have been left behind. The digital divide has become a chasm, deepening the inequalities that already exist.

Innovative Solutions in Affordable Housing

But affordable housing organizations are stepping up to the challenge. They’re getting creative, leveraging new technologies and federal funding to bridge the digital divide, one home at a time.

Take Mercy Housing, for example. They’ve deployed a clever solution in a 106-unit property in Denver, Colorado. By building an overlapping wireless network with several access points in the hallways, they’ve ensured that residents can access the internet right in their own homes. And the best part? It’s free for the residents, with Mercy Housing covering the $40,000 to $60,000 price tag.

Another innovative approach comes from National Church Residences, who have integrated digital access into their strategic plan. Their ambitious goal? To ensure that 90% of the residents in their affordable housing communities have access to affordable internet service by 2025.

Partnerships and Federal Funding

Of course, these solutions don’t come without their challenges. Exclusive wiring agreements with internet service providers (ISPs) can be a major hurdle, locking owners into long-term contracts and preventing other providers from entering the building.

But affordable housing organizations are finding ways to overcome these obstacles. By partnering with smaller, more nimble ISPs like Starry, they’re able to negotiate better rates and more flexible agreements.

And the federal government has stepped up in a big way. The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) have poured billions of dollars into broadband infrastructure, affordability, and digital equity programs. This influx of funding is a game-changer for affordable housing providers, giving them the resources they need to make meaningful, long-term changes.

Empowering Residents Through Digital Literacy

But it’s not just about the hardware and infrastructure. Affordable housing organizations are also focused on the softer side of the digital divide – empowering residents through digital literacy and navigation programs.

As Volunteers of America National Services (VOANS) has discovered, it’s not enough to simply provide the internet. Residents also need the skills and confidence to use it effectively. That’s why they’re cross-training their community health workers and resident services coordinators as “digital navigators,” equipping them to guide residents through the ins and outs of the digital world.

Tapping into Technology for Wellness

And the benefits of digital access go beyond just job applications and online education. At one VOANS property in Colorado, they piloted a program that distributed voice-activated speakers and tablets preloaded with a health and wellness portal. The result? An impressive 85% of residents successfully connected, empowering them to age in place and access critical healthcare services from the comfort of their own homes.

A Brighter Future, One Home at a Time

As I reflect on the progress being made in the affordable housing sector, I can’t help but feel a sense of hope. Sure, the digital divide is a daunting challenge, but these organizations are proving that with creativity, partnership, and a little bit of grit, it can be overcome.

And let’s not forget the human aspect of this story. When a family in affordable housing can access the internet, it’s not just about checking emails or streaming movies. It’s about connecting with loved ones, accessing essential services, and unlocking a world of opportunity. It’s about empowering people and giving them the tools they need to thrive.

So, let’s keep the momentum going. Let’s support the efforts of affordable housing providers and work together to make high-speed internet access a basic human right, not a luxury. Because in a world that’s increasingly digital, we all deserve a seat at the table.

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