Discrimination by Airbnb Hosts Is Widespread, Report Says
DEC. 11, 2015
Airbnb likes to refer to itself as less a company than a “community.” To that end, it has made trust between real people a cornerstone of its business strategy in short-term home rentals.
But new research suggests that when users get real, racism can result.
A working paper by three Harvard researchers found “widespread discrimination” by hosts against people with black-sounding names seeking rentals. Fictional guests set up by the researchers with names like Lakisha or Rasheed were roughly 16 percent less likely to be accepted than identical guests with names like Brent or Kristen.
“Clearly, the manager of a Holiday Inn cannot examine names of potential guests and reject them based on race,” the authors wrote. “Yet, this is commonplace on Airbnb.”
Airbnb, valued by investors at roughly $24 billion and based in San Francisco, said in a statement that it was “committed to making Airbnb one of the most open, trusted, diverse, transparent communities in the world.”
Last July, the researchers sent housing requests to roughly 6,400 hosts across five cities: Baltimore, Dallas, Los Angeles, St. Louis, and Washington. Renters with names that sounded African-American got a positive reply about 42 percent of the time, compared with roughly 50 percent for white guests.
The results “are remarkably persistent,” the researchers wrote, with whites discriminating against blacks, blacks discriminating against blacks, and both male and female users displaying bias.
The authors suggested the solution is simple: Don’t require users to reveal their names.
With more than two million listings across 190 countries, Airbnb has robust data on the reliability of its hosts and guests, from verified profiles to reviews of fellow users. Benjamin G. Edelman, an associate professor at the Harvard Business School and one of the paper’s authors, argued that those metrics are what should count when evaluating whether to go ahead with a transaction.
“Compare that with whether the guest’s name is Barack or the guest’s name is Bono,” Mr. Edelman said.
“At some point you say, ‘You know maybe it’s nice to see people’s names and faces, but gee, think about the harm that this causes for some people.’”
Airbnb, a standard-bearer of the so-called sharing economy, has argued forcefully that anonymity is incompatible with building trust between users. The anxiety attached to letting a stranger into your home, the argument goes, is lessened by a name and friendly face.
“Access is built on trust, and trust is built on transparency. When you remove anonymity, it brings out the best in people,” Brian Chesky, chief executive of Airbnb, said in 2013. “We believe anonymity has no place in the future of Airbnb or the sharing economy.”