How to Use Public Housing Funds to Support Internet Connectivity
HUD’s Office of Public and Indian Housing (PIH) recently issued guidance regarding the use of public housing funds to support Internet connectivity for public housing residents. PIH has found that although broadband Internet is vitally important for education, employment, health, and connection to others in the 21st century, many low-income Americans, especially those served by HUD’s public housing program, have less access to broadband Internet, devices, and the training to use them.
According to a Pew Research study, only 56 percent of adults earning less than $30,000 per year have access to broadband Internet at home versus 94 percent for upper-income families. And when considering devices used to access the Internet such as computers, phones, or tablets, only 18 percent of low-income adults have such a device.
The disparity in online access is also apparent in what has been called the “homework gap”–the gap between school-age children who have access to high-speed Internet at home and those who don’t. In 2015, 35 percent of lower-income households with school-age children didn’t have a broadband Internet connection at home, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.
Without access to broadband and devices at home, children and families will miss out on the high-value educational, economic, and social impact that high-speed Internet provides. Adults will have additional barriers to employment, miss out on job-related training, and the social supports and communication that Internet access can facilitate.
Although many PHAs have found creative ways to help bridge the “digital divide” by partnering with Internet service providers (ISPs) and by participating in HUD’s ConnectHomeUSA and Neighborhood Networks programs, not all residents are benefiting from these programs. As such, PIH has outlined how public housing funds can be used to support access to broadband Internet and devices.
PHAs may use public housing operating funds to provide Internet services to public housing residents in their units and in common areas. Section 9(e) of the Housing Act says operating funds provide for the following activities:
- Procedures and systems to maintain and ensure the efficient management and operation of public housing units;
- Providing adequate security for public housing residents;
- Activities to provide for management and participation in the management and policymaking of public housing by public housing residents; and
- Costs of operating computer centers in public housing through a Neighborhood Networks initiative.
Based on this section, PIH says PHAs can use operating funds to cover costs of Internet service for computer labs, common areas, and PHA operation and management purposes. PIH notes that access to the Internet in buildings and individual units enables public housing residents to better communicate with PHA management and resident councils. PIH also says providing Internet access helps PHAs share operational updates faster, support efforts to monitor visitors, and communicate with law enforcement.
The Public Housing capital fund provides funds for the capital and management activities of PHAs, including modernization and development of public housing. The funds can’t be used for operations or rental assistance. PIH says that for computer Internet connectivity, PHAs have used capital funds to update buildings to support broadband Internet and Wi-Fi. They have also used funds to purchase and install equipment, and for capital expenditures to facilitate programs to improve the empowerment and economic self-sufficiency of public housing residents, tenant accommodations, and training to operate equipment.
PIH’s guidance gives examples of the eligible uses of operating funds and capital funds for broadband-related activities.
Operating funds. Operating funds may be used for ongoing costs of operating computer centers in public housing including:
- Ongoing Internet connection fees and utilities;
- Computers and computer equipment;
- Staff salary;
- Other activities related to operating a computer center (such as training programs); and
- Network maintenance and security expenses.
In residents’ homes the operating fund may be used for the following, but not for any entertainment services:
- Internet service for residential units and common areas;
- Ongoing maintenance of PHA-purchased broadband equipment and wiring, Wi-Fi/mesh network equipment, satellite/cellular receivers, and in-unit routers, hotspots, and modems; and
- Related staff expenses.
Capital funds. PHAs have used public housing capital funds to update buildings to support broadband Internet and Wi-Fi. They’ve also used capital funds to purchase and install equipment, and for capital expenditures to facilitate programs to improve resident empowerment and economic self-sufficiency, tenant accommodations, and training to operate equipment. In residents’ homes, the capital fund may be used for:
- Installation of or upgrades to broadband infrastructure and hardware equipment such as modems, switches, or Wi-Fi extenders;
- Equipment to establish Wi-Fi (or mesh) networks/or upgrades to such equipment;
- Wiring of individual units;
- Installation of special directional antennae to extend wireless Internet connectivity from the PHA’s management offices to public housing properties, enabling households within reach of the wireless signal to have free connectivity;
- Installation of satellite/cellular receivers to connect properties to wireless broadband;
- Routers, hotspots, and modems for individual units (but not Internet connectivity; this would be an operating fund expense).
According to PIH, resident councils can use the $25 per occupied unit funding they receive for the same Internet connectivity expenses mentioned above under the capital fund and operating fund eligible uses.
CARES Act Funds
The CARES Act of 2020 provided an additional $685 million for the Public Housing operating fund to “prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus, including to provide additional funds for public housing agencies to maintain normal operations and take other necessary actions during the period that the program is impacted by coronavirus” until Dec. 31, 2021.
The flexible nature of the CARES Act fund allows PHAs to fund activities to support or maintain the health and safety of assisted residents and support education and childcare for impacted families. As such, PIH says CARES Act funds may be used to cover in-unit Internet service and shared devices.
According to PIH, PHAs have purchased devices for students to learn, such as laptops or tablets. Some PHAs opted to fund Internet service for units with school-aged children. Others installed Wi-Fi routers or provided mobile hotspots for loan, and some allowed residents to borrow devices for telehealth purposes and distance learning.