The Internet Comes to the Projects

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Washington -- C. Austin Fitts talks a new language of "electronic swarms" of government and civic leaders finding ways to wire low-income neighborhoods and housing projects onto the information highway.

In her prior lives, Ms. Fitts was a Wall Street public finance whiz and chief for a while of the Federal Housing Administration under President Bush. Now heading Hamilton Securities, a Washington-based merchant banking firm, her mind races to define new ways to wed technology, low-income housing, and what she calls sustainable learning communities.

It's all highly unconventional stuff -- a jump ahead of its time. But if you want to consider a 21st century American society that works for more than a highly educated upper crust, check Ms. Fitts' thoughts.

A housing expert, Ms. Fitts is convinced there's sure defeat -- especially in today's cutback environment -- to the idea of constantly rehabilitating low-income housing, watching it deteriorate, then spending millions to rehab once again.

Real estate, she believes, can't have value unless the people inside it have value. Yet if they do gain skills, they'll be able to pay higher rents. Money will be available for preventive maintenance instead of repeated cycles of deep decline. More diverse and less poverty-afflicted families will be attracted.

The changing world economy destroyed many of the manual labor jobs on which low-income people depended. But now, says Ms. Fitts, there's fresh hope. The raw-material and capital-based economy is fading.

Instead, the new economy is knowledge-based. In America and globally, intellectual capital is the new coin of the realm. For less-educated people, that sounds scary.

But, says Ms. Fitts, the costs of computers, software, microtechnology and on-line education are plummeting. That means low-income housing can join the cybernetic revolution. Installing computers, terminals and cabling in assisted housing projects needn't be prohibitively expensive.

But there's need for training, and neighborhood technology advocates and enablers to create what Ms. Fitts calls the sustainable learning neighborhood, a place where learning becomes a lifelong value, and the first people trained learn to train others.

Once that occurs, and neighborhood people use electronics to break out of the isolation that plagues ghettoes and barrios, all manner of entrepreneurial microenterprises become feasible. Residents can be organized to do data entry and apply business programs for large firms that would likely never dream of moving their direct operations into parts of a city they consider chancy.

Ms. Fitts' Hamilton Securities is doing that in a pilot project in Washington, D.C., right now. But she sees multiple applications. For example:

"If I'm Safeway and consider a half-million-dollar store in the South Bronx, that seems risky, and maybe dangerous for my employees. But if I can fly in on-line, have my grocery orders taken by a co-op of residents who've organized their own microenterprise, then I have just one delivery to make and can build up a presence slowly and risk-free in that neighborhood."

In all this, one does see a new sense of what low-income neighborhoods might be. Instead of residents having to ride three or four buses to faraway jobs, more and more of them could get busy, close to their own children, close to home.

Rather than the image of cyberspace dispersing people and neighborhoods to the seven winds, Ms. Fitts sees some communities strengthened: "Where we live and who we work with will stitch together more closely, just as it did in village culture."

Both political parties have failed poor neighborhoods, she believes: "Lots of Democrats didn't want to connect with people, really -- just to spend a ton of money on them. Conservatives hate waste, blame the residents for the waste, although the people in those neighborhoods didn't design welfare or the other programs."

But both parties should welcome the idea of more self-sufficient, learning-oriented neighborhoods. Why? The single biggest barrier to balancing the federal budget is insufficient productivity -- especially among the millions now dependent on government subsidies. Today they're a drag on our global competitiveness. Give them skills and they become an asset -- to themselves, and our entire society.

Traditional welfare programs don't spell reform. Indeed, Ms. Fitts recommends "data circles" -- using computer technology to track down the immense social welfare money, from assisted housing to food stamps to Medicaid, being spent in each census tract or neighborhood. "Data circles will blow the lid off the Great Lie -- that there is no money," she says.

What we need to do, Mr. Fitts concludes, is spend more of the money on training, skills, on competent people who can promise the nation a future worth living.

Neal Peirce writes regularly on urban affairs.

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