Homemade Access

State housing agencies are finding ways to bring residents of public housing across the digital divide.
May 2003
Ellen Perlman
By Ellen Perlman  |  Former columnist
Ellen Perlman was a GOVERNING staff writer and technology columnist.

We're all dependent on e-mail and the Internet--at work and at home. Imagine then, first having to go to a library or community center and wait in line to use a computer, and then facing limits on the time you can spend online. That would be enough to deter even the most motivated Web surfer. For many low-income Americans, it's their only option.

But that's starting to change in Kentucky and several other states. Since January 1, the Kentucky Housing Corp. has required that new homes and apartments it finances be equipped with wiring for Internet access.

This is not the first time public housing has offered residents an opportunity to learn about computers. Some developments around the country have common areas outfitted with computer labs and offer classes and computer time. But Kentucky housing finance officials know that's not the same as having the chance to log in from home. "The intent is to get it to the individuals," says Kim Lyon, spokeswoman for the agency.

The policy affects new construction and reconstruction of affordable housing that receives more than 50 percent of its financing from the Kentucky Housing Corp. The new housing may be in rural areas where the infrastructure for access to high-speed Internet doesn't even exist. That doesn't matter. Whenever such access comes to those areas of the state, the housing units will be ready with the right wiring so they don't have to go through an expensive retrofit.

While Kentucky is the first state to require new homes and each new multi-family housing unit be wired, Nebraska is giving a big nudge to low-income housing developers, using incentives to get them to do the same thing. In the scoring process the Nebraska Investment Finance Authority uses to allocate low-income housing tax credits to builders, those willing to spend the $10 to $15 per month per unit for Internet connections and service to the tenants earn a point toward getting state money.

Doesn't sound like much? "Our point schedules are pretty small," says Randy Archuleta, administrator of the tax credit program. "That could make or break a deal. One point is all it takes sometimes to get your tax credits." And for developers, those credits can help pay for 70 percent of the project cost through a process of selling the credits to investors. In the last go-round of financing, the authority approved four applications. Of those, three applicants agreed to wire for the Internet.

Oregon is on a similar track. Quite a few developers there have been wiring units for the Internet as a trade for tax credits. The Oregon Housing and Community Services Department used to give a benefit for wiring the common areas. Now the department is taking the next step. "We're looking for something that has a good public purpose," says Bob Gillespie, housing division administrator. The agency expects it will become standard for housing to have in-unit wiring for high-speed Internet service, the way it has in the student rental market, and feels it's important to stay current in the marketplace. It's cheaper to put the wiring in now and not build developments that will be functionally obsolete. "Most of our sponsors consider it a reasonable thing to do," Gillespie says.

The idea for much of this came from an advocacy group called One Economy, a national nonprofit organization with the goal of helping bring access to technology into the homes of low-income families and provide information and tools for them to get a leg up in a wired world. "If low-income people are left out, they will be left behind," says Lisa Patlis, director of special initiatives.

One Economy also provides a highly usable consumer Web site that offers people educational information for improving their lives. It's the kind of place where people can find out where to get health insurance or how to use an ATM or what a 401(k) plan is.

But first, low-income families have to have a way to access the Internet from home. To that end, One Economy continues to develop partnerships with entities in the affordable-housing industry, working with them to develop strategies for wiring their properties and finding low-cost ways for residents to buy computers and Internet service.

Ellen Perlman
Ellen Perlman | Former columnist | mailbox@governing.com