Connecting state and local government leaders
Nearly one million households that live in public housing units do not have access to the internet, according to a new report.
Most households around the country have internet service, but about 2 out of 10 adults still lack access at home. And many of those—about 970,000 households—live in public housing units run by local housing agencies.
The disparity is significant in several ways, according to a report released earlier this week by The Pew Charitable Trusts. “Broadband is no longer a luxury that only a few people need; it is a critical service that supports Americans’ economic opportunity, health, education, recreation and well-being.”
High-speed internet at home can help people find jobs and children do better at school. But one of the broadband researchers interviewed said there is a “more argument” as well.
“Low-income people deserve to do whatever they want on the internet, too, not just for all the critical things, like health and education. You should be able to sit down and stream a video with your kid if you want to, or by yourself,” the report quotes the researcher as saying.
This gap could change with the bipartisan infrastructure act’s $42.45 billion in broadband funding set to be sent to the states in the coming months. The funding is a “unique opportunity” to finally address the disparity for people living in public housing, which has its roots in the racist practice of redlining, according to Kathryn de Wit, director of Pew’s broadband access initiative and the report’s author.
States are still in the “early days” of figuring out what to do with the historic investment in broadband, said Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, in an interview. “The states right now are supposed to be doing their planning process, their stakeholder engagement.”
BroadbandOhio, a division of the Ohio Department of Development, for instance, asked the state’s residents and businesses on Tuesday to take an online survey on the quality of their broadband connection to identify gaps in coverage in the state and come up with a plan for the money.
Still, Seifer said there are ways states can address the problem, including paying for what the study called the “prohibitive costs” to housing agencies of connecting higher-speed broadband to public housing, which tends to be older and does not have the wiring that’s needed.
Indeed, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which is expected to announce how much each state will be getting by the end of June, said that one way the money can be spent is to improve broadband in multifamily housing, a move Seifer called “fabulous.”
However, de Wit noted in an email that even with the funding, there could still be questions about whether people in housing projects will be able to afford to be online.
Redlining, which kept low-income people of color from being able to buy homes in certain parts of towns and cities, is one of the reasons why the disparity for people in low-income housing exists, according to the Pew report.
Broadband companies, who are focused on making money, have not spent the money to connect high-speed service in the poor areas of towns, including public housing, that have resulted from redlining.
Rather, the study said, investments by broadband companies to install and upgrade service “typically flow into wealthier neighborhoods.”
Pew, for instance, cited a 2019 study by the USC Annenberg Research Network on International Communication, which said that broadband companies in Los Angeles County “cherry-picked” where it installed faster service, and bypassed areas where a larger share of low-income and Black residents live.
The Pew report also cited another study by The Markup, which looked at the quality of service in 38 cities served by four broadband companies. That study found that minority neighborhoods with lower incomes had poorer service than the rest of the cities.
Internet service providers have not made investments in federally subsidized multifamily housing “because those properties do not meet the companies’ requirements for return on investment,” the Pew report said, quoting broadband experts. Even when companies install fiber in an area, they do not always connect the fastest kind of broadband technology to nearby federally subsidized housing.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development did take a step to make broadband available to more residents of public housing. In 2017, it required that new low-income housing include broadband. However, the report said, that does not help the fact that half of public housing units were built before 1975. Because the buildings are older, many have outdated wiring or the wrong wiring needed for high-speed internet. And public housing agencies don’t have the money to update or install the wiring, particularly when they have an estimated $70 billion in deferred maintenance “needed just to keep units habitable,” the Pew report said. “With limited funding available, these repairs necessarily take priority over broadband installation.
Another problem is that residents of public housing don’t have the money to pay for broadband. Public housing is prohibited from charging residents more than 30% of their monthly income on rent and certain utilities like electricity and water. But under HUD’s policies, high-speed Internet isn’t considered a utility.
“Thus, households living in federally assisted housing must pay the full cost of a broadband subscription in addition to their housing and utility payments,” according to the report, “which for most very and extremely low-income residents is cost-prohibitive.”
The federal government, through its Affordable Connectivity Program, does provide subsidies of up to $30 a month to low-income people for broadband. But only about a third of eligible people have signed up for the subsidy.
A number of state housing agencies have been trying to make broadband available to more of their low-income residents, said Stockton Williams, executive director of the National Council of State Housing Agencies. In 2021, for instance, the Ohio Housing Finance Agency began requiring that developers seeking housing tax credits include broadband in their buildings and make Internet access free in common areas.
Penelope Martin, a spokeswoman for the Ohio housing agency, said in an email that it is considering giving applicants for the tax credits extra points next year if they also provide Internet for free or at reduced prices in the apartments. “We understand the importance broadband access has for all Ohioans, and it is a necessity in our lives, for work, health care or school. We are working to ensure residents in [low-income housing tax credit] properties have the same access as other Ohioans.”
Rhode Island, meanwhile, opted to use $1.5 million of its Community Block Development Grant funds in 2021 to add high-speed internet at public housing authority buildings and community centers around the state, said Lindsay Russell, deputy director of communications and stakeholder engagement for the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation. The public housing authority in Newport, Rhode Island, for example, is working to provide free internet to hundreds of public housing residents, she said.
According to the Pew report, the disparity exists not only for the nearly 1 million people living in public housing run by local housing agencies. It exists as well for those whose incomes are low enough that they would qualify to live in other types of subsidized low-income housing, including those run by low-income housing developers who receive the tax credits.
Nationally only 57% of adults with annual household incomes under $30,000 have high-speed internet at home, compared to 77% of all adults, the study said.
Among other things, said Siefer of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, states could use the broadband funds to buy computers and other digital devices for low-income housing residents and to train them on how to use them.
“There's an opportunity here to really help folks fully adopt the internet with this federal investment,” she said.
For Pew’s de Wit, though, there was one main concern—whether people could afford broadband when the one-time infusion of money runs out. HUD, she said, should consider making more permanent changes like factoring in broadband in the costs people in public housing have to pay.
Kery Murakami is a senior reporter for Route Fifty.
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