Now that the federal-eviction moratorium has expired — despite unprecedented unemployment rates — millions are primed to lose their homes.
At the same time, families are struggling to make another payment: their broadband bills. Even before this pandemic, as many as 22 percent of households in this country didn’t have home internet, mostly because they couldn’t afford it. During the COVID-19 emergency, closing this digital divide has gotten even harder: Recent research shows that more than half of all low-income broadband users in the United States are worried about paying their internet bills.
The eviction crisis and the digital divide are linked in ways that reinforce generations of systemic racism and economic injustice.
Digital divide & online evictions
The primary driver of the digital divide is a lack of affordable options — a situation the pandemic has worsened. Now people have even less money to pay their bills, but broadband is just as expensive as ever.
Some internet providers, including Charter and Comcast, have taken voluntary “pledges” and expanded some affordability programs in recent months. Yet too many families have had their internet service disconnected when they couldn’t pay their bills — leaving them unable to apply for unemployment benefits, access telehealth care and participate in online learning in the middle of a national emergency.
The longstanding digital divide (and these recent broadband shutoffs) disproportionately harm low-income families and people of color — the same communities suffering the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Only 56 percent of households making less than $20,000 had home broadband prior to this crisis, but Black and Hispanic households in this income bracket lagged even further behind in broadband adoption. In other words, it’s even harder for people of color to get connected and stay connected than it is for their white counterparts, even when they have the same income.
That also means the same families struggling to afford an internet connection are some of the most likely to face eviction proceedings. That’s a brutal combination — not least because people without home internet are often unable to connect to their online eviction hearings, resulting in default eviction judgments. At a single online hearing in Collin County, Texas, five tenants lost their homes for failing to join a Zoom call.
Those forced from their homes are also thrust into an even starker digital divide, one where a wired broadband connection that serves the whole family is, at best, only sporadically available. Mobile broadband isn’t an adequate replacement — getting online via smartphones typically means dealing with lower data caps and less functional devices, which can be devastating for families trying to juggle online learning, remote work, telehealth and so much more.
Even where digital-inclusion efforts exist, these families are likely to slip through the cracks. Many school districts are partnering with internet providers such as Charter and Comcast to purchase internet access for their students, but most of these services aren’t set up to follow the students if they’re evicted.
What do we do?
To survive this pandemic, struggling families must be able to stay in their homes and connect to affordable internet, without evictions or shutoffs. That’s why 830 groups have urged Congress to pass a national moratorium on shutoffs for essential services like broadband and other utilities, and it’s why a national movement to cancel rent is gaining serious traction.
Some folks in Congress are listening: The House passed a bill in May to suspend broadband shutoffs and offer all low-income and impacted households a $50 monthly benefit to put toward any internet plan of their choosing, along with other crucial affordability measures. Unfortunately, the Senate headed into recess without voting on any of these measures.
But now rent is due, recess is ending and the people can’t wait.