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Cambridge Human Rights Commission Discusses Rental Assistance Program, Housing Discrimination in Meeting

The Cambridge Human Rights Commission discussed ways to address housing discrimination and lower barriers to obtaining housing at a Thursday meeting.
The Cambridge Human Rights Commission discussed ways to address housing discrimination and lower barriers to obtaining housing at a Thursday meeting. By Julian J. Giordano
By Erika K. Chung and Emily L. Ding, Crimson Staff Writers

Cambridge’s Human Rights Commission discussed housing discrimination and ways to facilitate household participation in a Massachusetts rental assistance program to obtain housing in the city in a Thursday meeting.

The Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program, introduced in Massachusetts in 1978 following the passage of a 1974 federal housing law, helps 20,000 households find apartments in Boston, Cambridge, and Brookline. In 2019, the three cities asked the federal government to allow them to vary housing payments by ZIP code, a change that has led to increased payments to households living in affluent areas.

Josh Stadlan, chair of the Human Rights Commission, said Section 8 program tenants are often denied housing due to credit score screenings — a barrier Human Rights Commission Attorney Investigator Carolina Almonte said the CHA is working to reduce.

“We are trying to look at alternative credit — guidance for landlords and property owners in Cambridge — because credit scores are used, in our view, way too often,” Almonte said. “It’s definitely a hurdle that folks face in terms of getting housing — voucher holders or not.”

“We are trying to encourage landlords to look at different metrics such as rental history, other bills that are paid on time — especially folks that are immigrants or just don’t have a credit history,” she added.

Almonte said the Cambridge Housing Authority receives a “high number” of complaints that landlords are denying housing to tenants participating in the Section 8 program.

“Sometimes we see that with just flat out, ‘I don’t want to accept Section 8, or I don’t know what Section 8 is,’” Almonte said. “Other times it’s using credit scores to say that someone’s not eligible for housing or just writing off folks based on their source of income.”

Still, Almonte said landlords in Cambridge “should be accepting Section 8.”

The meeting also addressed housing discrimination in the city, with the commission discussing a WBUR article published last December detailing racial discrimination by landlords.

Cambridge City Councilor Judith Laguerre recounted an anecdote of an immigrant couple from Somalia and Morocco who struggled to find affordable housing due to their skin color.

“And people are talking, ‘It’s ten years ago; it’s eight years ago,’” Laguerre said. “This is an example. It’s alive and well, and it’s not going away like this.”

During the meeting, the Human Rights Commission also discussed discrimination arising from the use of artificial intelligence in hiring practices and workplace settings.

“The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission put out in their new draft strategic enforcement plan — mentioned for the first time — that they are going to be looking into discrimination, employment discrimination that takes place over artificial intelligence or machine learning,” Stadlan said.

Commissioner Mercedes Evans said she opposes the use of software to screen for employee applicants, adding it would not remedy extant discrimination.

“I do think that one of the bigger questions is the baked-in discrimination that may show up because of who is actually doing the programming,” Evans said. “And there have been studies already that have shown that if you have a name that is ethnic — however they define that — then more often than not, that counts against you.”

“AI is probably not going to help it. But we do still have those other underlying kinds of prejudices that are going on and have gone on for some time,” Evans added.

—Staff writer Erika K. Chung can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @erikakychung.

—Staff writer Emily L. Ding can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @emilylding.

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