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Friday, December 11, 2015

New Study Shows That Airbnb's Community isn't Always So Welcoming to African-Americans

Posted By on Fri, Dec 11, 2015 at 10:44 AM

MIGHTY TRAVELS/FLICKR
  • Mighty Travels/Flickr

Airbnb prides itself on being a community. Slogans on the short-term home rental company’s homepage declare as much: “Welcome Home,” “Belong Anywhere,” and, of course, a section where you can meet the Airbnb “community.”

But according to a new study from the Harvard Business School, that community isn’t so welcoming to African-Americans.

Researchers conducted a field experiment wherein they created 20 identical Airbnb profiles, half of which were registered to “distinctively African-American” names and the other half to “distinctively White names.” They then inquired about 6,400 Airbnb listings in five cities: Baltimore, Dallas, L.A., St. Louis, and Washington D.C.

You can probably guess what happened.

Requests from presumed African-Americans were denied 16 percent of the time. As the researchers note, “The penalty is consistent with the racial gap found in contexts ranging from labor markets to online lending to classified ads to taxicabs.”

Interestingly, researchers found that both white and African-American hosts discriminate against African-American guests. Men and women discriminate equally. Hosts across neighborhoods, no matter how diverse, also consistently discriminate.

This has two notable economic effects. Hosts lose $65-$100 each time they reject an African-American guest. And listings from non-black hosts cost 12 percent more on average.

As the researchers point out, other online booking sites such as Priceline and Expedia don’t offer participating hotels the opportunity to reject guests based on their presumed identities. Discrimination among Airbnb hosts is baked into the platform. Since profiles include names, personal bios, and (usually) photos, hosts have more information to feed their own biases.

(It’s worth noting here that Harvard’s study didn’t include profile pictures — only names. How photos might have changed the results is hard to say, although we can assume not for the better.)

Airbnb isn’t the only online marketplace guilty of racial bias. As the study notes: “Loan listings with pictures of African-Americans on Prosper.com are less likely to be funded than similar listings with pictures of White borrowers…[and] buyers are less likely to respond to Craigslist listings showing an iPod held by a Black hand compared to an identical ad with a White hand.”

(For what it’s worth, Prosper.com is a San Francisco-based peer-to-peer lending company that facilitated a $28,500 loan to one of the alleged San Bernardino shooters.)

So, what can Airbnb do to curb discrimination among its community?

Researchers suggest that the company could conceal guest names, just as it already conceals email addresses and phone numbers. The company could follow eBay, for example, in using online aliases rather than people’s real names. Another option is to offer instant booking, whereby hosts would accept guests without screening them first. This is a practice commonly used by traditional hotels and bed and breakfasts.

In a statement to Fusion, an Airbnb spokesman said: “We are committed to making Airbnb one of the most open, trusted, diverse, transparent communities in the world. We recognize that bias and discrimination are significant challenges, and we welcome the opportunity to work with anyone that can help us reduce potential discrimination in the Airbnb community.”

Airbnb...always welcoming.


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Jeremy Lybarger

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