Report Highlights Challenges in Expanding Broadband Access in Affordable Housing
The Pew Charitable Trusts recently published a brief that outlines the challenges and opportunities of providing broadband internet access in federally subsidized housing. The brief highlighted HUD programs such as ConnectHOMEUSA and the use of pandemic funding to accelerate broadband deployment and access for residents. However, the report finds that funding remains limited, and broadband expansion is competing with basic maintenance for resources in many communities within the HUD portfolio.
At the household level, the benefits of broadband access include reduced isolation and increased social connection; support for aging in place; access to education, health care, and financial services; and ability to find and apply for jobs. In addition to the direct benefits for residents, the brief highlighted benefits for the management and operation of affordable housing sites and the services residents receive.
For example, in April 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, HUD authorized PHAs to conduct many functions virtually that previously could be done only in person, such as resident briefings, hearings and housing counseling, and unit inspections. And the brief notes the importance of broadband for enabling a range of online operations and services during the pandemic, including rent payments and maintenance requests; the use of smart devices to improve energy efficiency and cut utility costs; and resident health care assessments. The report finds that many of these services and management functions have remained online as the pandemic has waned because virtual systems provide more flexibility and accessibility to residents.
Challenges to Broadband Access
Residents of federally subsidized multifamily housing face multiple barriers in getting online, including:
Digital skills training. Residents of HUD-assisted housing are disproportionately people over 65, people with disabilities, or people with limited English proficiency. These groups are already less likely than the national average to have a broadband connection.
Access to devices. Getting online requires access to an internet-enabled device. Existing subsidies such as the $100 discount toward the purchase of a computer or tablet provided through the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), which was created under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, are one-time benefits that give households only a single device and may fall short of meeting families’ needs. Subsidy amounts may be too low to cover the cost of a device, and most subsidy programs don’t account for the need to regularly upgrade devices or provide devices for multiple household members.
Lack of trust. Affordable housing residents may harbor a deep mistrust of internet service providers (ISPs) because of past experiences with unexpected fees and disconnection of service.
Building age and type. Much of the affordable housing stock predates broadband. Some buildings have never been wired for broadband, while others have outdated wiring and use older technologies that can’t meet modern needs. And concrete walls can inhibit wireless signal penetration.
Further, retrofitting an older property to update or install new wiring is prohibitively expensive for most housing providers, and they can’t raise rents to cover the costs.
Resource constraints. The brief cites the need for housing providers to have personnel available to help residents get online, and many sites don’t have adequate capacity. As a result, the burden of helping residents access subsidies and troubleshoot technical problems often falls on resident services staff or service coordinators instead of having funding to hire full-time digital navigators.
No Single Solution
The brief emphasized that no single solution to expand broadband access for all affordable housing residents or sites will work. The lack of broadband is ultimately a property-level challenge. What works for one property may be impractical for another. And solutions must consider the housing type, property age, subsidy type, geographic context, and local broadband service availability, among other factors. Also, access alone isn’t helpful if residents don’t have the devices and skill needed to use the new broadband connections.
Instead, the report concludes that meeting this challenge will require a continued commitment from leaders at all levels of government; early and ongoing engagement with residents, property owners, and other stakeholders; and sustained funding sufficient to provide low-income households with the affordable connections, devices, and skills they need to enjoy the full benefits of broadband.