By Jessi Mitchell

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – One of the socioeconomic disparities the pandemic highlighted was the access to high-speed internet. The New York City Housing Authority is racing to fix the problem, at the speed of broadband.

Working from home is the new normal for thousands of New Yorkers, but if you call a Housing Authority property home, working can be a lot more difficult.

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“Many of the communities that were already disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, already experiencing disparities, had this new digital disparity really exacerbated,” said Sideya Sherman, who is in charge of NYCHA’s community engagement and partnerships team.

Tenants at the James Weldon Johnson Houses in East Harlem have complained to her about spotty internet, even in the community center computer lab.

“When they come here, it works some days. Some days it don’t,” said community center program director Rob Clarke.

Resident association president Ethel Velez uses a walkie talkie app on her phone to communicate between buildings because the service is so bad.

“Families had to make a choice,” Velez explained. “Either they worked and their children weren’t on for school or the kids did their schoolwork and the parents couldn’t be at work.”

Connecting broadband to each NYCHA site is a massive undertaking, but when the pandemic hit, the internet master plan Sherman and the city’s Racial Inclusion and Equity Task Force had been pushing for was propelled to the priority list.

“Many of us live and come from these same neighborhoods that have been disproportionately impacted, so the work is deeply, deeply personal,” Sherman said.

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CBS2’s Jessi Mitchell asked Sherman why it took so long to get the green light.

“I think that we’re fortunate that there was a vision in this administration to begin to address these, this redlining, these disparities,” she responded, “and the pandemic has really helped to expedite and propel a plan. But having that road map in place is really important because that’s what is bringing us to the point that we’re at now.”

Four of the 21 properties in phase one are done, with the rest slated to finish by the end of the year, all together servicing 40,000 tenants.

In October, the city announced an additional $157 million in funding to bring 1.5 million more New Yorkers online in the next 36 months.

“Better late than never,” Velez said.

Neighbors across the street in Jefferson Houses are in the midst of their upgrade right now, but tenants at Johnson Houses have a while to wait. They are not part of phase one.

If you have a tip about the happenings in Harlem, please reach out to CBS2’s Jessi Mitchell by clicking here.

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Jessi Mitchell