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How affordable housing community is helping close digital divide

For the millions of New Yorkers who lack high-speed internet access, vital public services like education have become out of reach during the pandemic, causing already vulnerable students to fall even further behind.

Now that public schools are again closed in New York City in response to the rising COVID-19 positivity rate, the need for reliable and widespread broadband service is more acute than ever.

Over 700,000 students and 18,000 teachers reportedly lack adequate broadband access statewide, though the concentration is highest across the five boroughs. Even if families are provided with free remote devices, many students are still unable to properly connect with their teachers or finish homework assignments, and their guardians cannot attend virtual parent-teacher conferences.

The affordable housing industry is stepping up to help bridge this gap through the Community Classroom Program. The program, launched by the New York State Association for Affordable Housing (NYSAFAH) with seed money provided by The Wells Fargo Foundation, identifies underutilized community spaces with WiFi access in affordable housing properties.

The spaces, currently unused as a result of the pandemic, are repurposed to function as “classrooms” to provide students the tools necessary to access – as the state Constitution requires – a sound, basic education.

Each participating property will each receive funds to hire a full-time on-site facilitator who will ensure that all students follow social distancing regulations and disinfect the space after each use. The pilot program will launch in December 2020 and will last 16 weeks.

Ten NYSAFAH member properties have been selected to participate in the program across communities in the Bronx, Albany, Kingston, Yonkers, Rochester, and Brooklyn. We look forward to expanding this program in the future based on demand.

This program could not come at a better time. The digital divide – already considerable across New York City – has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the problem is particularly acute in low-income communities of color. Recent data published by the New York Urban League found that about 58 percent of Black New Yorkers have access to home broadband, compared to 82 percent of their white counterparts.

It should come as no surprise that a lack of broadband access is directly correlated with housing insecurity. In New York City alone, 40 percent of households across the five boroughs – about 3.4 million people – lack either a home or mobile internet connection, while 18 percent of households have neither.

In other words, the housing crisis and the digital divide go hand-in-hand, and the pandemic has underscored the importance of addressing both of these issues head-on.

All New Yorkers, no matter their background or socioeconomic status, deserve access to high-speed internet service. This access should no longer be considered a privilege but a right.

While the Community Classroom program will not solve this problem alone, it will help thousands of students over the next four months. It is an example of how we all have a role to play in supporting our neighbors.

We look forward to working with our members on this initiative now and in the future, and we hope our actions will inspire others to step forward to assist in supporting and growing this worthy initiative.

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