How one community in Michigan bridged the Digital Divide for one of its most underserved populations
Pittsburg, Pennsylvania (May 9, 2022) – Affordable housing is available throughout the country for individuals, families, and senior citizens who meet the necessary income criteria for eligibility. Those who qualify are often considered to be in the low to moderate income range. According to a 2020 Housing Impact Report by The Public and Affordable Housing Research Corp. (PAHRC), 2.9 million seniors lived in publicly supported housing in 2019, a 2.9% increase since 2018. As the number of seniors in need of affordable housing continues to grow, quality apartments such as Labelle Towers become highly sought after.
Labelle Towers is a 10-story senior apartment complex located in downtown Highland Park, Mich. The area is currently being revitalized, with new businesses and retail shops opening, and a new fire station under construction. The high-rise boasts 212 units for adults ages 55 and older. Although Labelle Towers was built in 1973, it recently underwent a $7 million renovation, making its modernized units highly desirable. There is currently a waitlist for potential tenants.
The growing need among senior citizens
Although affordable housing has continued to be a great need among senior citizens over the past few years, those working in the housing industry have begun to see another significant need among this population — access to broadband.
AARP’s Aging Connected Report estimates that 22 million (42%) of American seniors lack broadband access at home. The Digital Divide among the aging population can be attributed to rising costs, digital literacy, or simply lack of access.
Senior citizens who don’t have adequate broadband not only lack the ability to use the internet to stream their favorite shows, look up recipes, or talk to loved ones, but — more importantly — they don’t have access to essential medical resources. The same report also found that over 80% of COVID deaths in the United States have been older Americans, and about 40% of them were unable to access their doctors or other care online because they lacked in-home internet.
“Seniors tend to be prioritized after school-aged children and working professionals, despite the shifting of resources,” said Katie Hearn, Director of the Detroit Community Technology Project. “It’s essential that they also have access to everything from health care and social services to bill payment and socializing. It’s vital that our elders are not only able to utilize telehealth services, but also that they are able to stay connected with their friends and family, especially given the risks and restrictions posed by COVID-19.”
Labelle Towers, home to many of Highland Park’s underserved seniors, is no exception when it comes to the growing Digital Divide among aging adults. “Highland Park faces similar challenges to nearby Detroit, but is in many cases able to leverage even fewer assets and resources for residents,” said Hearn. “The legacy of digital redlining across this community means that folks have been historically, and intentionally, marginalized from accessing affordable and reliable internet service because they weren’t commercially viable areas.”
Teamwork makes the dream work
The Detroit Community Technology Project, which facilitates the training of residents as Digital Stewards, has teamed up with the North End Woodward Community Coalition (NEWCC) and 123NET to bridge the Digital Divide at Labelle Towers. The Digital Stewards Program was developed by the Detroit Community Technology Project, it trains neighborhood leaders in the technical and community organizing skills necessary to design, build, and maintain community wireless networks.
“We can’t expect the world to change rapidly with technology and then leave our senior citizens that simply can’t afford high-speed internet behind,” said Marli Blackman, Communication Director for NEWCC. “Residents at Labelle Tower didn’t have affordable resources to access the internet or even the necessary tools, such as a computer.”
NEWCC is a Detroit-based social justice/community development organization that’s working to build power by focusing on equitable systems change. Part of its mission is to establish opportunities that improve the quality of life for the community. Along with 123NET and the Detroit Community Technology Project, the work the organization is doing at Labelle Towers is going a long way to improve the lives of its residents.
“Our team provides the training and field support to NEWCC’s Digital Stewards, who are truly the ones on the ground at LaBelle Towers,” said Hearn. “We provide support with equipment purchasing and procurement. Our partnership with commercial provider 123NET powers the gigabit connection that the stewards are redistributing throughout their neighborhood. We believe that communication is a fundamental human right, and that digital justice is rooted in racial justice. We are proud to support the Digital Stewards team in bringing their very clear vision to life.”
In addition to providing the broadband access that was lacking at Labelle Towers, NEWCC’s Digital Stewards are on site at the complex, signing up residents for service and discounts through the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Affordable Connectivity Program. According to the FCC’s website, the Affordable Connectivity Program helps ensure that households can afford the broadband they need for work, school, health care, and more. The benefit program provides a discount of up to $30 per month toward internet service for eligible households, and up to $75 per month for households on qualifying tribal lands. It also provides up to $100 toward the purchase of an internet-enabled device, such as a tablet or PC.
So far, 100 Labelle Towers residents have signed up for service discounts through the Affordable Connectivity Program and have also secured 60 laptops.
The community celebrated the installation of high-speed internet at Labelle Towers at a special meeting on April 20, announcing that the service is now available to all residents.
Why it matters
This project shows the power of communities coming together for the good of the people living in them. As federal and state funding for broadband continues to expand, the community partnership created through the work at LaBelle Towers is a shining of example of what can be accomplished through teamwork.
“We will continue to put in countless hours and build lasting relationships to continue providing the service, training, and equipment to end the Digital Divide with our senior citizens and low-income communities,” said Blackman.
Both Blackman and Hearn noted that Labelle Towers residents are thrilled with the renovations and upgrades at their home. Labelle Towers is now nationally recognized as “A Community of Quality ” by the National Affordable Housing Management Association and is considered a highly desirable place to live for income-eligible senior citizens in Highland Park. Now that high-speed internet is accessible and affordable for residents, its waitlist will no doubt continue to grow.
The hard work done by this team aligns with CN’s mission to close the Digital Divide everywhere. CN is proud to support this project and many others like it across the country. To learn more about Connected Nation visit: www.connectednation.org.
About the Author: Ashley Pino is the Connected Nation Marketing Communications Specialist. She is responsible for communications and marketing functions that broadly publicize Connected Nation (CN)’s mission, educate stakeholders on Digital Divide issues, and lead to new programs and projects that expand CN’s social impact.
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