Reality hits e-village

December 12, 2003

FOUR YEARS ago, when modern townhouses replaced the demolished Lexington Terrace public housing high-rise project, the new mixed-income community sported a decidedly utopian twist: All tenants in 203 subsidized units were offered free computers, complete with Internet access and maintenance.

The experiment reflected President Bill Clinton's desire to close the "digital divide" between technology haves and have-nots. Or, as his top housing official put it at the time, "The information highway need not bypass distressed neighborhoods or poor people."

This initiative got off to a rough start. It garnered national media attention, but many tenants resisted the required two-week training courses. Others had trouble with the computers. Nevertheless, close to 200 tenants ultimately took advantage of the free computers, which became part of their units, "just like a refrigerator or stove."

Regrettably, when the demonstration grant runs out Dec. 21, no one will be able to tell what the experiment achieved. Neither the Housing Authority of Baltimore City nor the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has conducted any review. Were the computers used for doing homework and writing job applications, or for playing video games? Did they contribute to their users' lives, particularly by boosting job prospects?

Perhaps the answer can be gauged from what happened after the experiment at the Terraces. No other Hope VI redevelopment project in Baltimore offered free computers to all subsidized residents. Instead, joining the information highway became a personal choice and payment responsibility - just like telephone and cable television.

That's how it should be. Taxpayers should not be saddled with the cost of subsidized housing tenants' communications service; no convincing case has been made that it is a necessity of life.

Baltimore housing officials say they intend to allow subsidized renters at the Terraces to keep the computers, which have been fully depreciated. Officials are also looking for ways to keep the Internet service going, including private funding.

That's a noble idea. But they should also figure out what the experiment achieved by studying computer usage among renters at the Terraces and a control group of tenants who don't have Internet access at home. That would offer insights into the "digital divide" and its consequences.

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