Over the past 19 months, the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the shift to online services, making digital access an essential lifeline to sustain health and economic well-being. Despite ongoing challenges, SAHF and its members have sought to bridge the digital divide in affordable housing communities and address deepening digital inequities with action, advocacy and a practitioner's resource that offers solutions for providers and residents. And, this week, as advocates recognize Digital Inclusion Week 2021, affordable housing providers and residents have much to celebrate. From the new Emergency Broadband Benefit Program (EBB) to state and local COVID-19 recovery funds available, to the potential resources of the bipartisan infrastructure bill, there are several opportunities for affordable housing owners to implement digital inclusion activities that address the needs of communities and people underserved by current policies and systems.
Emergency Broadband Benefit Program/Affordable Connectivity Program
Launched in mid-May, EBB offers eligible low-income households a monthly discount of up to $50 on their internet service. As of the end of September, 6+ million households have enrolled in the program! Yet, the lack of automatic eligibility for residents of federally assisted housing, which is a top priority for SAHF, staff capacity limits, and uncertainty about the temporary nature of the program have stymied enrollment efforts for affordable housing residents. SAHF is excited to see the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) include $14.1 billion for a modified EBB, called the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP). The program could be made strong and more effective by making residents of federally assisted housing automatically eligible for EBB/ACP. If Congress doesn’t act to make this improvement before IIJA is passed, implementing agencies could still work to lower participation barriers for residents in important programs like EBB/ACP.
The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA)
ARPA, enacted into law on March 11, 2021, allocated $350 billion to state, local, territorial, and tribal governments response to the COVID-19 pandemic and economic fallout. This is an unprecedented amount of flexible funding that can explicitly be used for broadband infrastructure and digital inclusion activities. Affordable housing providers can potentially use fiscal recovery funds to support building-wide access paired with digital literacy supports, addressing access and adoption barriers that prevent residents from full connectivity. Stakeholders must act swiftly though to influence how their states and localities allocate these funds. ARPA also established the Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund, which allocates $10 billion to states and territories to fund broadband projects that directly enable work, education, and health monitoring, including remote options with a prioritization for projects that promote digital equity.
As the outlined programs continue through implementation, more needs to be done to ensure all residents of federally assisted housing can fully engage in online activities. We know the Biden administration and new leadership at HUD recognizes the importance of connectivity and its impact on residents’ health and economic mobility. We urge HUD to consider the suggestions that SAHF and our partners at NAHMA and NLHA put forth earlier this year as first steps towards fully scaled, long-term solutions. Now is the time to close the digital divide and leverage the full range of online tools and connections to create healthier, more equitable communities beginning at home.
Andrea Ponsor, President and CEO, Althea Arnold, SVP Policy, and Lucas Asher, Policy Associate, Housing Stability and Resident Wellbeing