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NYC Housing Agency Turns to Libraries to Improve Tech Access

The NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development is working with the city’s library systems to pilot solutions that will expand technology access and use for the constituents the agency serves.

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The NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) is working with the city’s three library systems as part of a multifaceted approach to improve digital equity.

Like many public housing authorities during the COVID-19 pandemic, HPD Chief Digital Equity Officer Dave Seliger said the agency discovered that many tenants — around 80 percent — did not feel comfortable using the Internet.

“That kind of was the impetus for our agencies trying to think about digital equity across all the different programs and projects we do,” Seliger said of the agency, which runs the second largest Section 8 program in the city.

To more clearly understand the gaps that these constituents face, HPD then worked with the NYC Behavioral Design Team at the NYC Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity, run by the nonprofit behavioral science research and design firm ideas42, to survey more than 800 New Yorkers, more than 400 of which were Section 8 participants.

The findings were published in a booklet — officially released June 22 — which Seliger hopes will serve as a kind of blueprint for other public housing authorities and government agencies that serve low-income tenants.

He underlined the importance of determining specific community needs before deploying funding or programs that may not meet those needs. For example, Seliger noted the research highlighted the misconceptions around the age groups libraries serve; older adults believed libraries primarily served younger people, while younger adults believed that libraries primarily served older people.

Specifically regarding technology, the survey found residents may not understand how they would benefit from digital literacy education. In contrast, however, respondents did indicate that they were concerned about online scams and cybersecurity-related topics.

Through the research, findings also revealed that because libraries rely primarily on outreach channels to existing patrons, many residents had misunderstandings about what services libraries offer and for whom. In addition, some individuals may feel discouraged to visit based on past experiences or stereotypes, or other barriers to visit and receive services, like inconvenient hours of operation.

“The vast majority of our Section 8 households don’t go to the library, full stop,” Seliger said, noting this is true not just for technology support but for any library service offerings.

As such, HPD will be working with the city’s three public library systems — the New York Public Library, the Brooklyn Public Library, and the Queens Public Library — to expand awareness of and access to library programs and services.

The city has brought on program design consultant TYTHEdesign to turn this research into testable program concepts to bring people to the library for tech-related services and determine how to bring library services directly to the people.

“We’re hoping to have some type of pilot service that we’re able to launch in the next six months or so,” said Seliger.

Editor's note: A statistic about the percentage of HPD constituents without access to Internet was incorrect and has since been adjusted.
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.