Effort aims to close the technology gap in public housing

City loans to aid purchase of computers



Baltimore officials hope hundreds of public-housing residents will buy reduced-price computers as part of a program, to be announced today, aimed at closing the city's digital divide.

Initially, about 65 families will receive the low-interest loans that can be used to buy $300 computers, but more residents will be allowed to take part as the first loans are repaid, officials said.

Mayor Martin O'Malley is also expected to sign an executive order that could make it easier for developers of low-income housing to provide Internet access to residents. The program, "Connected Communities, Connected City," will be unveiled today at City Hall.

Mario Armstrong, O'Malley's technology advocate, said the program moves the city closer to ensuring that low-income families have access to the same technology wealthier residents take for granted. More than ever, he said, that access is crucial.

"How are kids going to be able to compete 10 years from now if they don't have the tools that a lot of other families have?" Armstrong asked. "Close to 80 percent of jobs require you to have some knowledge of technology."

Armstrong said he doesn't know how many residents will take part in the program, but focus groups conducted in Baltimore indicate high interest, he said.

Karen L. Ayiloge, who lives in Latrobe Homes on the east side, expects to receive her computer today. She hopes to use it to help her children with homework and also for family entertainment.

Ayiloge likely will pay for her own Internet access.

"To me, it's just everything I need inside the house without going outside," she said. "It just makes things easier."

Under the mayor's order, new housing developments that receive financial assistance from the city must include the cables, routers and other hardware needed to make buildings Internet-ready.

The order would allow -- but not require -- low-income housing developers to fold the cost of obtaining high-speed Internet service into low-interest loans and other government grants they receive. Armstrong and others hope that incentive will persuade developers to make Internet access a standard feature of low-income housing.

About 40,000 residents live in 14,000 public-housing units, according to the city. The additional building requirements apply only to new construction, but anyone in public housing can apply for the loan.

Similar initiatives have been launched in other states as local governments attempt to increase broadband Internet access. Philadelphia has led that effort, proposing to turn the entire 135-square-mile city into a wireless Internet hot spot.

A Washington nonprofit organization, One Economy, donated $20,000 to start Baltimore's loan fund. The group also created an Internet site, www.thebeehive.org, to help city residents gain access to services, craft resumes and design household budgets.

Alec Ross, One Economy's senior vice president, said the Internet is an increasingly important tool for everyone. Low-income residents, he said, should not be excluded.

"If you don't have access to the Internet, you better have a strong wrist because you're going to grow up flipping burgers," Ross said. "Part of this is about treating low-income people like human beings."


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