The 929 Apartments at 929 Massachusetts Ave., Mid-Cambridge, is one of a few large developments that rent to people using Section 8 rent vouchers. (Photo: Google)

For the first time in recent years, a majority of low-income Cambridge tenants with Section 8 rent vouchers are finding a place to rent in Cambridge. Still, relatively few are leasing from small landlords here, underlining the city’s housing divide when it comes to income.

Michael Johnston, executive director of the Cambridge Housing Authority, which administers the federal rent assistance program, pointed out the trend last month at a meeting of the CHA board and described it to the City Council’s Housing Committee. Only 221 of the 1,239 Section 8 units in Cambridge, or 18 percent, are being rented from “small mom-and-pop-type landlords,” Johnston said in an email.

The remainder of Section 8 units are in buildings owned by affordable housing developers, luxury housing that is required to include some lower-rent apartments and a few large developments such as the 929 Apartments at 929 Massachusetts Ave., Mid-Cambridge, and Walden Park at 205 Walden St., Neighborhood 9, Johnston said. Those sites have U.S. Department of of Housing and Urban Development contracts to rent some apartments to Section 8 tenants.

Douglas Quattrochi, executive director of MassLandlords, a nonprofit organization representing and educating landlords, said it’s “sadly not surprising” that few small landlords rent to Section 8 tenants. Although state law prohibits discriminating against applicants because they get government aid, landlords can “always take a better qualified or faster applicant,” Quattrochi said.

“The Section 8 program is not competitive with market applicants, especially in Cambridge,” he said. “Consider the typical university-affiliated, highly educated and compensated market applicant in Cambridge compared with a Section 8 applicant who, however well prepared, still might have to wait two months for their case worker to do the paperwork to lease up. The landlord will rent that apartment to the market applicant every time.”

The need for inspections before owners can participate in the Section 8 program can also cause “major delays,” he said.

Quattrochi also said many landlords don’t know they can’t reject applicants solely because they get Section 8, and there is little enforcement. MassLandlords has tried to educate landlords on the law, he said.

Dollar limits

Section 8 is a federal program that helps low-income tenants find housing in the private market. Tenants pay roughly 30 percent of their income toward rent and the government pays the rest, up to a limit.

That limit, set by Housing and Urban Development agency, can keep tenants from finding housing in a high-rent city such as Cambridge, because some landlords won’t accept below-market rents. CHA has won the right to set higher rents than the federal agency allows, but more and more Section 8 certificate holders have sought housing outside the city since the early 2000s.

Cambridge, Boston and housing authorities in several neighboring communities won a 26 percent increase in Section 8 rent caps in 2019. Cambridge also adopted a method of setting rent limits by ZIP code in an effort to open up more neighborhoods to Section 8 tenants. Results haven’t been reported.

Now, 54 percent of Section 8 tenants overseen by the authority are renting in the city, Johnston said. Yet more than a third of them are living in buildings owned by affordable housing developments, sites that are filled by other low-income residents. Those in inclusionary units – apartments that luxury housing developers must set aside for lower-income tenants – make up another one-third-plus, and tenants in the small number of older large buildings with HUD contracts constitute about 10 percent, according to Johnston.