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Human Rights Commission

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Cambridge Human Rights Commission

The Cambridge Human Rights Commission (CHRC) was established in 1984 to protect the civil rights of residents and visitors to the city. The Commission enforces two ordinances: the Cambridge Human Rights Ordinance, chapter 2.76 and the Cambridge Fair Housing Ordinance, chapter 14.04. In operational terms, this means the Commission is a city law enforcement agency that investigates and adjudicate complaints of discrimination in the areas of employment, housing, public accommodation and education. Additionally, the Commission aids the City of Cambridge by educating both businesses and residents, providing community outreach, and cooperating with other city, state and federal agencies. The Commission is available to conduct workshop presentations on fair housing and employment discrimination for community groups, social service agencies, and schools. 

The Commission has employees who speak both Spanish and Haitian Kreyol.



Announcing our new Fair Housing and Lead Paint Discrimination Brochures

Search our publications to download any of these seven languages: Amharic, Bengali, Chinese, Haitian Creole, Portuguese, Spanish and English.

Fair Housing is Illegal           Protect your family from lead paint poisoning




Tips and FAQs

What is discrimination?

Discrimination occurs when a policy or practice segregates, creates unequal status, separates or has a disproportionate impact on a person based on his or her membership in one or more legally protected categories. The protected categories under the Cambridge Human Rights Ordinance and the Cambridge Fair Housing Ordinance are the following:

  • Disability – Defined consistent with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) – a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities
  • Race
  • Color
  • National Origin or Ancestry
  • Family Status
  • Source of Income, includes Section 8 and public benefits
  • Marital Status, includes married and non-married individuals
  • Sex: Male or female, includes allegations of sexual harassment
  • Gender identity or expression
  • Sexual Orientation: Heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual
  • Age
  • Religious Creed
  • Military Status

Discrimination can impact a person in multiple areas of his or her life, including, but not limited to, housing, employment, access to public accommodations, education, provision of public services, banking services and insurance. If you feel you have been the victim of discrimination in Cambridge, contact the Cambridge Human Rights Commission.


What is the CHRC complaint process?

The Commission will provide a thorough, impartial investigation of the complaint, which may include witness interviews, site visits, and the collection of relevant documents. At the conclusion of the investigation, the Commission will issue a written determination explaining its findings. The Human Rights Commission does not represent either party during the investigation; it is a neutral party.

What are the possible outcomes of an investigation?

The investigation of your complaint may result in:

  • An agreement between both sides, reached with the help of the Commission.
  • A final determination issued by the Commission, which states that, based upon the evidence, there is a "Lack of Probable Cause" to believe that discrimination has occurred. In this event, the case will be dismissed.
  • A final determination issued by the Commission, which states that, based upon the evidence, there is "Probable Cause" to believe that discrimination occurred. In this event, efforts to conciliate an outcome acceptable to both parties will take place.
  • If efforts to conciliate are unsuccessful, a public hearing will be held at a later date. A public hearing is a full legal hearing. At the hearing, parties will have opportunities to present evidence and argue their position. The results of the hearing are legally binding.


What are some remedies if discrimination is found?

If, during the Commission’s investigation, the evidence is sufficient to show that discrimination may have occurred (Probable Cause), the Commission will attempt conciliation between the parties. If the Commission’s conciliation efforts prove unsuccessful, it will schedule a public hearing at the Commission. The Commission has the authority to provide various remedies after hearing, including filing a criminal complaint in District Court, levying civil fines of up to $300 for each violation, filing a civil complaint in Superior Court seeking injunctive relief, and seeking an award of damages, expenses and other relief. If Probable Cause is found in a complaint filed under the Cambridge Fair Housing Ordinance, either party may opt to remove the case for trial in the Massachusetts Superior Court or to the Attorney General’s Office for review and resolution.

What is covered by the Cambridge Fair Housing Ordinance in relation to Housing Discrimination?

The Fair Housing Ordinance prohibits discrimination in real estate transactions such as:

  • viewing or renting an apartment
  • terms and conditions of tenancy
  • refusing to reasonably accommodate a person with a  disability if the accommodation would not cause an undue hardship to the landlord
  • viewing or purchasing a home
  • applying for or obtaining a mortgage
  • purchasing homeowners' or renters' insurance
  • printing, publicizing or advertising housing in a discriminatory manner
Under the law, landlords, sellers and rental agents may use any reasonable standard to determine which applicants are selected, as long as that standard is applied equally and uniformly to all applicants. Tenant selection may be based on:
  • an applicant's ability to pay the rent
  • an applicant's ability to take care of the apartment and to respect the rights of others
  • NOTE: there is an exemption for 2-family dwellings, when the owner lives there
  • A person who believes he or she has been discriminated against in housing should contact the Cambridge Human Rights Commission to schedule an intake interview to review their allegations.

Do I need a lawyer to file a complaint?

You are not required to have an attorney to file a complaint or to represent you in any proceeding before the Commission, although you may retain one at your own expense at any time. During the investigation of your complaint, the Commission acts as a neutral party in gathering evidence and determining the merits of the complaint. Upon the completion of the investigation, if the Commission determines that there is sufficient evidence to find that discrimination may have occurred, the Commission will endeavor to conciliate the matter. If conciliation is unsuccessful, a public hearing will be scheduled and a Commission attorney will be provided to represent you at the hearing at no cost. You may retain your own attorney at your own expense.

What information should I provide for a complaint?

At the intake meeting, you should be able to provide the following information:
  • Names, work addresses, and work phone numbers of the people or entities you believe discriminated against you
  • Your name, work and home addresses, and work and home phone numbers
  • A concise chronology of discriminatory incidents that you believe occurred, with approximate dates
  • A list of names and phone numbers of witnesses, if known.
  • If you have documents relevant to your complaint, be sure to keep them in a safe place, as you will be asked to submit them during the investigation.

May I file an anonymous complaint?

Yes, if "public interest" requires the use of a pseudonym. Factors used by the Commission in determining whether the public interest would be served by allowing the Complainant to proceed under a pseudonym are:
  • The potential physical danger to the Complainant if his or her identity is disclosed to the  Respondent and/or its agent, and
  • The privacy interests of the Complainant.

What is employment discrimination?

The Human Rights Ordinance prohibits employment discrimination in Cambridge. In general, complaints of discrimination are brought for two reasons: (1) "Disparate Treatment" - an employer treats a person, who is a member of a protected class (i.e. race/color, national origin, age, etc.), differently than someone who is not in their protected class; or (2) "Disparate Impact" - a policy which on its face appears neutral, but actually negatively affects one protected class more than another group of people.

Complaints may be brought if individuals believe they were discriminated against due to:

  • Failure to hire
  • Terms and conditions of employment, including: Sexual Harassment – (1) “Quid Pro Quo”: Conditioning employment or promotion on sexual favors; or (2) “Hostile Work Environment”: Continuous sexual advances and comments that create an uncomfortable and hostile workplace
  • Termination
  • Failure to promote
  • Failure to provide reasonable accommodation to a disabled person, if such accommodation would not cause undue hardship to an employer
  • Retaliation by an employer for actions protected by the anti-discrimination law
A person who believes he or she has been discriminated against with regard to employment in Cambridge should contact the Human Rights Commission to schedule an interview to review their allegations.


What is public accommodation discrimination?

Discrimination in places of public accommodation in Cambridge is prohibited by the Cambridge Human Rights Ordinance. A public accommodation is any business or other establishment that provides goods and services to the public (examples: hotels, restaurants, retail stores, shopping malls, hospitals, rest rooms, parks, theaters, gymnasiums, and transportation terminals). Under the Ordinance it is an unlawful practice for any person directly or indirectly to withhold, deny, or in any manner limit the full use of a public accommodation by any person, or discriminate against such person with respect to the use of such accommodation, because of the race, color, sex, age, religious creed, disability, national origin or ancestry, sexual orientation, gender, marital status, family status, military status or source of income of such person.

Under the Human Rights Ordinance, places of public accommodation are required to remove structural barriers that impede access by persons with disabilities when it is readily achievable to do so. Examples of such barriers include narrow entry doorways, one step entrances without ramps, checkout counters that are too high and parking lots without designated accessible parking spaces.

A person who believes he or she has been discriminated against in a place of public accommodation in Cambridge should contact the Cambridge Human Rights Commission to schedule an interview and file a complaint. 


Who are the members of the commission?

As provided under the Cambridge Human Rights Ordinance, the City Manager has the authority to appoint eleven Commissioners, each serving three year terms. The Commissioners serve as volunteers, and work with the Commission staff in fulfilling the mission of the agency. 

Current Commissioners:
M. Chanta Bhan, Chair
Bonita Cox 
Nadia Davila
Mercedes S. Evans
Chara Itoka
Nicholas G. Leydon
Olinda Marshall
Cynthia Orellana
Sabrina Selk

Last Updated: 4/13/2017 | Provide feedback on this page

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