NYCHA Adds Third Digital Van, Expanding Internet Access For Public Housing Residents

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The newest “digital van.” Photo: Alex Gerald

NYCHA unveiled its third “digital van” – a computer lab on wheels – at the LaGuardia Houses on Tuesday. It is the latest addition to a very small fleet dedicated to touring public housing developments throughout the city, providing internet and computer services to residents who have limited or no access to digital services.

“This is an opportunity for residents to access the web,” said NYCHA Chair and CEO Shola Olatoye. “We’re bringing technology straight to people’s doors.”

Olatoye said the vans are just one component of NYCHA’s overall plan to stabilize its finances and become a more efficient agency.

Combined, the three vans reach a total of 36 NYCHA developments every two weeks, according to Olatoye. That’s double the reach of the first two “digital vans” alone, but with over 300 developments citywide, it’s still a drop in the bucket.

The authority faces a $60 million budget deficit this year, so it won’t be rolling out an entire army of “digital vans” any time soon. But the new addition is certainly welcome.

NYCHA IT executive John Saggese said internet access in most public housing buildings is “spotty.”

Many of NYCHA’s developments were, of course, built long before the internet was born, and were constructed using a lot of sturdy – but not Wi-Fi friendly – materials like brick and concrete.

Plus, many of New York City’s public housing projects are huge. The LaGuardia Houses, for example, consists of 10 buildings – each 16 stories tall – with over a thousand apartments total. And that’s just one of NYCHA’s 328 developments. 

“It would take a lot of routers to cover that,” Saggese said.

While NYCHA tenants can set up cable TV and internet service themselves, it isn’t cheap – especially for low-income residents. And sometimes, Saggese said, “even if they have internet, they don’t have a computer.”

That’s where the “digital vans” come in.

Each one is equipped with 8 Dell laptops, two tablets and two Wi-Fi hotspots that create a 150 foot “Wi-Fi bubble” around the van. And all of the devices can be used in seven different languages: English, Spanish, Chinese, Haitian Creole, Russian, Arabic and Bengali.

Kim Maxwell is the new van’s driver and instructor. He helps NYCHA tenants navigate the technology.

“For these residents, this is a necessity,” he said. “We’re getting a lot of people who are looking for work.”

Some show up to create, copy or scan their resumes, and many apply for jobs online. One tenant used the computers to finish an associate’s degree. Maxwell said he also get’s a lot of older residents who come in to learn basic computer skills like how to send an email.

Jessica Thomas, president of the tenant association at LaGuardia Houses, said of the newly unveiled van: “I love it. For people – even who are computer illiterate – it will open up a new world.”

The new “digital van” will remain at the LaGuardia Houses today and Friday. Click here for a full schedule of where the vans will be throughout the month. 

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Kim Maxwell (Left) helps a NYCHA resident use the new computers. Photo: Alex Gerald