Hotel residents excluded from DTV coupons

March 26, 2009 5:40:20 PM PDT
The federal government has spent nearly two billion dollars on the digital TV conversion in an attempt to reach as many people as possible. However, there is a sizable population in San Francisco being ignored.

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Everyone who wants one is supposed to be able to get two $40-off coupons from the federal government for a digital converter box. But for tens of thousands of residents in San Francisco, that is not happening.

Huizhen Li of San Francisco lives in a cramped room at the Florence Hotel.

"I receive benefits income -- about a fixed income of $420 a month," said Li through a translator. "After I pay rent, there isn't very much left for anything else."

She can't afford to buy a digital converter box, and unless Li gets one, she will likely lose her television signal when the switch to digital takes effect on June 12. Yet her request for a government sponsored $40 converter box coupon has been rejected.

The U.S. Department of Commerce oversees the coupon program.

"The qualification for receiving a coupon is based on a census definition of a household," said Francine Jefferson with the Department of Commerce.

The department says a hotel is considered to be a business and not a residence. That means people like Li don't qualify even though she has lived there for five years.

The city estimates that 48,000 people live in residential hotels in San Francisco.

"I think we would all agree that it is a problem when large numbers of residents and consumers are left to other devices to come up with coupons," said Jefferson.

Residents living in nursing homes were also excluded from the coupon program. The Department of Commerce changed that back in September, but people living in residential hotels were left behind.

"It's actually a really big deal because we received a lot of seniors that would come to our assistance centers and they want to apply for coupons," said Christina Wong with Self Help for the Elderly.

So a handful of non-profits like Self Help for the Elderly are making donated coupons available. Li was able to purchase a converter box for five dollars after using a donated coupon.

Self Help for the Elderly went to her home to try to install it.

But even after the box is installed, reception is difficult. The agency will have to come back another day and attempt to fix the problem.

On the opposite end of the building, Self Help for the Elderly has also assisted another resident with her converter box. Reception on that end of the building is much better.

"I'm really happy and excited that I can watch TV now," said resident Liu Yin Liu.

7 On Your Side contacted the offices of Senator Dianne Feinstein and Speaker Nancy Pelosi about this issue, and they both say that if the Department of Commerce wanted to expand the coupon program, it could. The department tells us it chose only to expand the program to residents of facilities licensed by states, such as nursing homes.

If you would like to donate an unused coupon to those that can't get one, you can visit one of the Bay Area non-profits currently accepting them:

Oakland Digital Television Assistance Center, 1431 23rd Avenue, Oakland, CA 94606; (510) 533-7266; M-F 11 a.m. ? 5 p.m.

The Self-Help for the Elderly, 407 Sansome Street, San Francisco, CA 94111; (415) 677-7600; M-F 9 a.m. - 4:30 p.m.

Southeast Asian Community Center, 875 O'Farrell Street, San Francisco, CA 94109; (415) 885-2743; M-F 8 a.m. ? 5 p.m.

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