Working with the Affordable Housing Sector_
Fifty years ago, a Northern Virginia Methodist Church actively looked for ways to enrich the lives of those living in their community. With affordable, decent housing topping the list of needs, a new organization emerged, called Wesley Housing. From its humble beginnings operating out of the trunk of a car, Wesley Housing now owns and operates more than 1,800 units of affordable housing in 26 communities in and around the Nation’s capital, and was named one of the top 50 affordable housing developers in the country.
Centri Tech is working with Wesley Housing at their newest housing project, a 126-unit housing development in Alexandria, Virginia, called the Arden. Centri Tech will be installing and managing a building-wide network that will bring 100mbps broadband to every unit as well as all resident common areas. Thereafter, Centri Tech Foundation will support Wesley Housing in digital skills and adoption programming to ensure the Arden community will be able to leverage all the opportunities a connection at home can provide.
We spoke with Wesley Housing’s President and CEO, Shelley Murphy about Wesley Housing’s approach to their work and how bringing technology to their residents helps Wesley fulfill its mission. “We own the properties essentially forever, because that’s the only way we can make sure that they remain affordable.”
And like many affordable housing providers, they offer much more than a roof over residents’ heads. They are committed to cultivating supportive communities where families can build up their lives. “We offer baseline services to all of our residents, and enhanced resident services to those communities where we have a need or a requirement for special programming. That’s everything from social programming for our seniors to combat isolation, to after-school programming, to a future development where we will provide on-site daycare. It really depends on the individual needs of the community.”
Prior to joining Wesley Housing, Shelley came from the tech sector at both IBM and Verizon, so she knows that access to technology is both a necessity and an opportunity. Wesley has seen first hand the shortfall of technological adoption by their residents. “Technology is something that we've been trying to figure out for a while. We knew the issue was there, and then the pandemic has made the issue so crashingly real for our residents.”
“First of all, many of the residents don’t have computers, they are not comfortable with technology. They may be more comfortable with their cell phones, which is more culturally-dominant for our residents, but they don’t have WiFi in many cases.”
And thanks in part to a 15-year-old policy effort by One Economy Corporation called Bring IT Home, solving for this lack of digital adoption is also now incentivized in publicly-financed affordable housing. “Through the State of Virginia Housing, we finance our properties with Low Income Housing Tax Credits. And they say ‘You will get points, which will make it easier to obtain tax credits, if you can install in-unit WiFi.’ It’s the right thing to do and it is so necessary.”
While reliable access to WiFi-enabled broadband is a need, Shelley also recognizes the opportunities that come along with it. “To be honest, where we are partnering (with Centri Tech) at the Arden, we do not have that requirement, but I am stretching the organization to make sure that we are doing that anyway.”
“The Arden is family housing. There will be a fair number of kids. In that case, the technology is about helping them access resources that keep them on a level playing field with the rest of the kids in their class without having to go sit in a library parking lot to connect to a virtual learning environment. My kids are not that far out of the nest, and the fight over the computers to get their homework done was a daily event, even before the pandemic, because the resources are all online.”
At Wesley Housing properties, residents earn as little as 30% of the area median income, up to 60%. “So these are folks, many of whom will be working, but they may be working two to three jobs to try to afford to live or it could be folks who just work at low-wage jobs. For working adults, we are starting up a financial literacy program, one-on-one coaching and education, online. They will also be able to look for employment opportunities online which is where all this stuff is now. And as we’ve learned through the pandemic, when we help residents apply for rental assistance because they may be out of work, they won’t have to make an appointment to come into the office to use our computers. So many government programs are just assuming that [residents] can access the Internet, that everybody can access an application through a computer, because they are not even cell-phone enabled in many cases.”
“In some of our properties we have more seniors than one might expect. In that case, we expect that the technology training and how we engage in the use of technology would be different than if they are primarily workforce age.”
“The Arden will also have ADA units. We have a developmentally-disabled set-aside and we’ve been partnering with a nonprofit who does on-site programming that is geared toward adults on the autism spectrum whose parents are looking for ways for them to live independently. This [technology] is a way for those folks to have an enriched life, but also as a way to offer these resident programs more broadly. That’s really the differentiator.”
“We are working with Centri Tech Foundation to figure out how to best leverage technology to bring these additional resources to our residents. We don’t live on the bleeding edge, but I am a fast follower of technology. So I watch it, and see what will work. This is on the horizon for us.”
Investing in Innovative Solutions for Social Justice_
“This [technology] is a way for those folks to have an enriched life, but also as a way to offer these resident programs more broadly. That’s really the differentiator.”
President and CEO, Wesley Housing
A recognition of our country’s growing “digital divide” takes early hold among policy advocates, spurring public and private efforts to connect the unconnected via public access points, such as libraries and newly-formed “community technology centers.”
First home Broadband installations begin, with about 2.5% of American households connected via an “always-on” Internet connection, surpassing the speed of dial-up connections which maxxed out at 56Kbps.
A new nonprofit organization, One Economy Corporation, forms to help bring internet connectivity, content, and training to low-Income Americans as a means to combat poverty. One Economy’s approach has a particular focus on home-based access for all.
One Economy creates the Beehive, a new online destination for education and tools to help low-income Americans meet the challenges and opportunities related to their finances, health, education, employment, and more.
One Economy launches the Digital Connectors program in Washington, D.C. to hire and train high-school aged youth in technology skills and then deploy them to serve as technology ambassadors in their neighborhoods. This pilot program would ultimately be replicated as a national model in communities from DC to San Francisco, resulting in more than one million hours of service to low-income neighborhoods and 10,000 young people trained.
One Economy launches the Public Internet Channel, a new website devoted to bringing public purpose programming to audiences often left out of the media landscape. The effort was co-chaired by Senators Barack Obama and John McCain.
President Obama signs into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), a stimulus package that includes $7.2 billion devoted to promoting broadband infrastructure and adoption.
One Economy receives the largest broadband adoption grant as part of the ARRA from the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP). This $28.5 million grant, backed by $25 million in private match, enables One Economy to expand its reach and impact into communities across the nation through its relationships with over 900 community-based organizations (CBOs), its connection of 27,000 units of affordable housing to broadband, and digital skills training to more than 260,000 Americans.
ARRA also commissions the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to create a National Broadband Plan, which was unveiled in March. The plan calls for 100 million homes to have 100/50 Mbps internet connections by the year 2020, 1 gig connections to community anchor institutions, and affordable access to in-home broadband connectivity and training for all Americans.
After 13 years of impactful work, One Economy Corporation’s highlights include: pioneering shared in-home broadband access and connecting more than 40,000 low-income households; training 10,000 Digital Connectors as tech ambassadors for nearly 1 million neighborhood residents; creating life-enhancing content and applications used by 20 million people, and creating the Bring IT Home policy campaign, which encouraged in-home broadband in publicly-financed housing in 40 states.
Mobile devices become the most common means of accessing the Internet, partly as a result of telecommunications companies' now-ubiquitous implementation of “4G” or fourth generation mobile networks, capable of transmitting data at speeds of 100Mbps.
Nearly 25 million Americans remain disconnected from broadband at home. For low-income and rural communities the numbers are worst of all–with nearly half of all households making less than $35,000/year still disconnected.
In December, a small group of entrepreneurs, including former founders of One Economy Corporation, found a new company called Centri Tech, to address tech infrastructure and adoption as a means to improve and enhance the lives of Americans, particularly the un- and under-connected.
Early in the new year, the sudden outbreak of a deadly new virus is declared a global emergency. In the U.S., and around the world, stay-at-home orders go into effect and people are left to manage their work, education, and healthcare online. Our collective lack of preparedness for this technological challenge is laid bare.
In November, Centri Tech officially launches, along with its nonprofit, the Centri Tech Foundation. Together, they lay the groundwork to execute on our new national imperative, Digital Advancement.
Local governments, places of business, and school districts all scramble to find fast and effective solutions to our now-obvious technical shortcomings. Some school systems distribute free devices to students that need them to bring classes 100% online. Internet connectivity remains a harder problem to solve, leaving many students to park outside of free public wifi hotspots to download and upload their assignments.
How did we get here?
Centri Tech Annual Report 2021