Closing the Digital Divide in Affordable Housing

Written by Danny Fuchs, Youssef Kalad, and Raquel Vazquez
Essentially all residents of affordable housing in New York State have access to internet service from cable companies that serve every housing unit in the state. The pandemic has demonstrated that this service is woefully insufficient: speeds are too slow for reliable video connections or use by multiple members of a family; costs are too high for too many; and many more lack the devices or skills necessary to use the internet effectively. Most residents have only a single choice of provider. Residents and managers of affordable housing need new tools to close the digital divide.
Previously, we’ve written about how community-based organizations can help and how policy changes could help wireless internet services providers (WISPs) to address access and affordability challenges, particularly in larger buildings. We’ve also written about how ill-prepared governments are to address the situation.
Now, we’re excited to announce the launch of the Affordable Housing Broadband Initiative (AHBI), a partnership of House New York, the New York State Association for Affordable Housing (NYSAFAH), the Ford Foundation, Schmidt Futures, and HR&A Advisors. We are thrilled to also have the support of New York State Homes and Community Renewal (HCR) and the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) as critical public agencies that can help deliver AHBI, and to be working with the Association for Neighborhood Housing and Development (ANHD) and the Supportive Housing Network of New York (SHNNY), among others, to reach tenants and building managers for a more inclusive planning process.
The Contemporary Policy Context
Impressive work on affordable broadband has been done in public housing developments. The Queensbridge Connected program provides free wi-fi to 7,000 residents in the nation’s largest public housing complex. Two developments in San Francisco have earned praise for their low-cost options. (HR&A is proud to now call one of the architects of the latter program, Preston Rhea, a colleague).
In New York City, HPD with support from NYSAFAH, has introduced new guidelines that will ensure affordable broadband in new, privately-owned affordable housing construction. While this program may be expanded to privately-owned affordable housing preservation financing, the vast majority of affordable housing residents live in buildings that will not benefit from such a program for many years to come.
Congress is seeking to give efforts like these a boost. Earlier this year, Representative Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) and House Financial Services Subcommittee on Housing Chair Emanuel Cleaver, II (D-MO) introduced the Broadband Justice Act of 2021, which would define broadband service as a utility in federally-subsidized housing and provide $5 billion for infrastructure upgrades and other essential uses – an Act that should be part of the $65 billion for broadband in the recently-announced bipartisan infrastructure package.
However, residents, building managers, ISPs and other industry players, and government agencies will still need tools and pathways to use these funds effectively.
Introducing the Affordable Housing Broadband Initiative (AHBI)
We are designing a comprehensive roadmap to expand access, affordability, and adoption of broadband in the more than 15,000 privately-owned affordable housing buildings in New York State. We call it AHBI (“Abby”), and we’re working to build a coalition of government and industry partners to help design and deliver this data-driven approach to shape the use of federal funds to close the digital divide in privately-owned affordable housing in New York State. Our intent is to subsequently scale the program nationally.
The work requires delving into the universe of existing privately-owned affordable housing developments, understanding the composition of the sector in terms of different building types with different levels of infrastructure quality and different tenant profiles, and designing a series of program tracks that are tailor-made to the diverse conditions of the sector overall. It will also benefit from a participatory planning process that creates space for input from all relevant stakeholders.
Partnerships and Building an Inclusive Engagement Model
AHBI envisions an ecosystem in which public-private partnerships expand broadband access, affordability, and adoption in affordable housing. In such a model, affordable housing developers and infrastructure and internet service providers will partner with government agencies, community-based nonprofits, and tenants on scalable, building-based solutions to achieve universal adoption in affordable housing.
The theory is that housing developers and building owners are looking to better serve their residents and differentiate their properties, and established and emerging internet service providers wish to leverage economies of scale to expand their footprints. Additionally, a network of fiber infrastructure providers, equipment and computing manufacturers, and skilled digital navigators will benefit by expanding their customer base as they ensure that architectural challenges and individual household needs are met. The challenge is complex – extending beyond the need for infrastructure upgrades or new affordability programs for broadband service to the imperative of addressing the device and skills gap that exists for many low-income and senior households – and will require dedicated action from all stakeholders to succeed. A successful program must be developed in conjunction with those most impacted by the digital divide – residents who are unconnected, under-connected, or poorly served by existing choices.
There are a number of potential solutions that AHBI may incorporate: funding or incentives for infrastructure upgrades to or within affordable housing buildings, bulk purchasing of service, provision of devices and digital skill-building to tenants, opportunities for new providers to be connected to building managers, and beyond. A menu of options may be designed for the sector overall, or be tailored to certain typologies of buildings across the state. We look forward to interrogating these models and others with the diversity of stakeholders that AHBI brings to the table, and then to work with them to implement solutions.
Opportunities to Participate
AHBI offers multiple platforms to connect with a range of individuals and professionals who can play a role in expanding broadband access in affordable housing throughout New York State. We’re actively looking for organizations interested in helping to shape the design and delivery of this program.
We have created a series of surveys for residents and tenants, housing developers and building owners, and industry and advocacy partners to share their feedback on their own experiences utilizing broadband and the challenges they perceive for their typology of building or their portfolio or the sector overall. We will use this input to shape more in-depth focus groups with each of the constituencies to gain a broader perspective of the critical challenges to broadband adoption and help us better understand the opportunities we can create to address these challenges.
We also invite everyone to attend a webinar about this program on Thursday, July 8th at 12:30 pm, in which we will discuss our agenda further and engage with New Yorkers interested in learning more and sharing their thoughts on how to make the Affordable Housing Broadband Initiative a strong, inclusive, and successful model for New York State. It is our hope that AHBI’s approach in New York can serve as a blueprint for closing the digital divide in affordable housing across the country – and that you will contribute to the process in New York or wherever you call home.