Client Stories

#WiFi4Homeless: Inaccessible Internet, Inaccessible Housing

Thank you to City Bar Justice Center summer intern Arielle Rosker for her investigation and for reporting on this story.

Suzanne Adler is a housing advocate who works for Neighbors Together, an organization dedicated to ending poverty and hunger by providing food and social services to New York’s most vulnerable communities. She works one-on-one and in small groups with individuals who have City rent vouchers and are seeking apartments.

The process of finding an apartment for members of Neighbors Together has its own set of challenges centered around the homeless population’s inability to access the internet. The internet access barrier causes great complications for poor members of Neighbors Together who are in search of an apartment. Searching for affordable housing in New York City today is nearly impossible absent the use of online housing search platforms such as StreetEasy, Zillow or apartments.com. Lack of ready access to the internet means that homeless individuals seek assistance from the very few organizations, such as Neighbors Together, that can help guide them through this process. Low income housing almost always involves payment via rent vouchers from the government. Yet it is often difficult to find landlords willing to accept vouchers, despite the rules that mandate acceptance for buildings with six or more units.

Landlords will thwart this rule by foisting the collection of required documentation on to the prospective tenant. Hence a prospective tenant that does not have ready access to a printer or a computer, faces yet another complication in the housing search. This is where Adler steps in and helps members fill out their applications and organize needed information for their prospective landlord. This, however, is just the first step in procuring a new apartment. Adler said, “If it doesn’t fall apart from the bureaucracy or technology, it’s something else… It’s like a marathon, one thing after the other”.

Typically, shelter caseworkers are unable to effectively help clients with these types of issues. These caseworkers lack the needed resources, training and technology to provide this kind of assistance. Caseworkers who want to help their clients will often hand out informational packets to individuals on how to look for an apartment. Unfortunately, these packets are typically outdated and provide lists of real estate agents who are no longer in business, with phone numbers no longer in service. Adler believes that shelter staff typically lack the training and technology necessary for housing advocacy services. Furthermore, government agencies often require use of antiquated technological systems such as fax machines, which many shelters also cannot provide. Neighbors Together has its own struggles regarding poor technology access. Adler reports that the organization lacks sufficient funding, and that the majority of their laptops for her workshops have been donated by her other real estate clients. “We need to piece things together,” Adler says.

Individuals seeking affordable housing, who do not find an apartment within six months, may lose their government-issued rent vouchers. Therefore, the lack of access to essential technology makes a six-month timeline nearly impossible to meet. This system is severely broken. But Adler believes there are solutions. To have a leg up in this process, she believes individuals must be taught how to adequately search for an apartment and they must have access to the internet.

Support the City Bar Justice Center’s and the New York City Bar Association’s #WiFi4Homeless advocacy campaign urging the City to include and prioritize homeless shelters in their plan to expand broadband internet access to low-income New Yorkers who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic: https://bit.ly/2FFfGax