Thousands of Denverites benefit from an unexpected partnership delivering high-speed Internet to low-income tenants who can’t afford market-rate pricing. Here’s how the “Internet Essentials” program changed one family’s life.
When 52-year-old Tara Cloe moved into a townhome in Denver’s West Colfax neighborhood – a two-story building managed by Denver Housing Authority – the new digs were a breath of fresh air. Her previous place was a one-room apartment on East Colfax Avenue that was catty-corner to a strip club.
“I had to empty my sink water outside,” Cloe says, thinking back to her former residence of 15 years. The piping below the basin was so old that Cloe’s former landlord couldn’t find replacement parts when it malfunctioned. “So he duct taped it,” Cloe says, adding, “It was terrible.”
Cloe quit her job as a personal care worker in 2006, soon after her granddaughter was born. “My daughter wasn’t able to care for her,” Cloe explains. So she did what she had to do, taking on the role of a full-time guardian — at which point Cloe’s small apartment got even more cramped.
Tara Chloe is one of many Denver Housing Authority tenants digitally connected through Comcast's Internet Essentials program. Photo by Jamie Siebrase.
“I was paying $250 for rent, and then [my landlord] raised the rent to $275,” says Cloe. “That was too high, and the house wasn’t fit to live in, to be honest.”
So Cloe “put in for housing,” she says, with the Denver Housing Authority, the largest provider of affordable housing in Colorado, serving almost 12,000 households annually.
Cloe doesn’t qualify for Section 8 Housing (AKA subsidized housing; the federal government's primary housing program for Americans living in poverty). But she secured a spot on DHA’s waitlist for affordable housing, which is housing that’s offered below market rate, for tenants falling within a certain income level.
According to DHA’s website, it can take six to 12 months to move to the top of the affordable housing wait list. In 2008, about a year after adding her name to the wait list, Cloe got word she’d landed an apartment at Westridge Homes, a red brick townhome community a few blocks south of Sloans Lake.
She and her granddaughter have plenty a space, now, and nobody has to empty stagnant sink water into the grass.
“I love it here,” Cloe says. “It’s close to the doctor where I go, and there’s a library down the street.” The flat she shares with her granddaughter is also within walking distance to DHA’s Mulroy Opportunity Center, where Cloe serves as vice president for the Westridge LRC, and attends monthly resident council meetings. The Mulroy Opportunity Center has plenty of other functions, too.
Wiring Public Housing
The first phone number I’m given for Cloe isn’t the right number. But I’ve got an email address, too, and Cloe and I find it’s easiest to correspond that way.
The Mulroy Opportunity Center. Comcast assisted DHA with a $100,000 grant to upgrade digital technology.
We set up an interview, and then reschedule it twice — each time relying on Gmail and Comcast to relay our messages. In fact, our interview might not have been possible without Comcast, which has been providing low-cost internet service to eligible individuals through its Internet Essentials program since 2011.
Internet Essentials is Comcast’s low-income broadband accessibility program. “We launched the program with the goal of bridging the digital divide,” says Mary Spillane, Comcast’s director of community investment. “There are thousands of individuals who aren’t connected because of financial challenges, and we thought that as a company we were uniquely positioned to provide this program.”
Initially Internet Essentials was only offered to families with children who qualified for the National School Lunch program.
“I remember when it first came out, they were going around the school lunchrooms, and if kids were getting free lunches you could get the Internet,” Cloe says.
Cloe has paid $9.95 a month (plus tax) for high-speed Internet since her now 12-year-old granddaughter was in kindergarten — and that’s all she’ll ever pay.
“There’s no credit check, no contracts, and the rates will never increase,” Spillane says. There aren’t extra fees for installation and equipment rental either.
Once folks are enrolled in Internet Essentials, they have a chance to buy a computer for just $150. “The connection itself is important, but really it’s what you do with it,” says Andy Davis, Comcast’s director of government affairs.
An Unexpected Partnership
It was the Internet Essentials program that brought Comcast and DHA together.
In 2015 folks from Comcast and DHA convened. “At first, [DHA] just wanted to know more about Internet Essentials,” says Davis, noting that the meeting was “mostly educational.”
The low-cost digital connections let more families use the internet in their daily lives. Photo by Jamie Siebrase.
Many DHA residents qualified for Internet Essentials already, by virtue of their children’s lunch bill status. But Tony Frank, DHA’s digital inclusion director, wanted to find a way to reach even more tenants — those without school-aged kids.
“When we sat down with Tony and got a sense of what he wanted to do, it really aligned with our vision,” says Davis.
Comcast decided to expand Internet Essentials, to include anyone living in low-income public housing, piloting the “housing component” of Internet Essentials in the spring of 2016. Since then, more than 1,000 DHA residents have connected to high-speed Internet through DHA’s partnership with Comcast.
Comcast also awarded DHA a $100,000 grant to upgrade its technology equipment, both in housing units and at five opportunity centers, where DHA provides free technology training for its tenants.
“Our relationship with DHA is serving as a model around not just the state, but the country, for how an Internet provider can work with the community,” says Spillane.
The Power of Connectivity
There’s no way Cloe would have been able to afford Internet services if it weren’t for Comcast’s Internet Essentials program. For many of us, it’s easy to take for granted what it means to be connected in 2018.
“It’s everything,” Cloe says.
Thanks to Internet Essentials, kids can play games - and also do their homework via the web. Photo by Jamie Siebrase.
Cloe doesn’t drive, but with the Internet she’s able to order groceries and renew prescriptions with a few quick clicks. Cloe’s granddaughter does her homework online, and when the remote control for a Nintendo Wii malfunctioned, Cloe was able to reset it with information she found on the web.
Cloe has a landline, but can’t afford long-distance calls. Last year – after taking one of DHA’s free digital literacy classes at the Mulroy Opportunity Center – Cloe joined Facebook, where she connected with cousins in the Midwest she’d never met. “I’m able to keep in touch with family I never knew I had,” she says, explaining that developing these kin relationships made her realize she’s not alone.
To date, Cloe has taken dozens of DHA’s digital literacy classes and workshop on everything from Skype and email to Internet search engines.
Her granddaughter – a math whiz who loves all things STEM – participated in a Kano computer event and also took a DevCamp coding class over spring break, offered at Mulroy through a partnership between DHA and the Denver Public Library.
That’s the thing about technology: “There’s always something new you can learn,” Cloe says.
We’ll see about that next month, when we sit in on one of the tech classes at DHA’s Connections@Mariposa Opportunity Center.
This story is part of a series on the Denver Housing Authority and is underwritten by Comcast.