Do Airbnb hosts discriminate against renters by race?

Gregory Selden is suing Airbnb for discriminatory practices by hosts and is seeking a class action that will represent others who have had similar experiences.

Yuya Shino/Reuters/File
A man walks past a logo of Airbnb after a news conference in Tokyo. The website that allows people to post their private residences for short-term rentals is being sued for not taking action against 'hosts' who discriminate based on race.

For many vacationers, Airbnb has become the alternative to expensive hotels, allowing travelers to stretch their dollars by staying in short-term rentals in private homes. But for many black vacationers, booking a room has sometimes proved to be a challenge – as more African-Americans have been sharing their experiences on Twitter under the hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack.

One of those tweeters is taking things a step further. Gregory Selden, a man who claims he was racially discriminated against as a potential Airbnb renter, has filed a lawsuit against the San Francisco-based company, accusing the company of ignoring his complaint. Mr. Selden, who filed the lawsuit in federal court in Washington D.C., alleges that Airbnb failed to take any action against a host who had rejected him as a guest because of his skin color.

The lawsuit highlights some of the thorny issues that have risen in the age of the so-called "sharing economy" where companies such as Airbnb, Uber, and others are being scrutinized for what some see as a failure to regulate their independent contractors. 

But suing the companies may not be that simple. Selden is seeking a class action suit that will represent others who have had similar experiences, citing violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But Title II of the act, which prohibits discrimination in places of public accommodation including, hotels, restaurants, movie theaters and sports arenas, would only apply to hosts who had five or more rooms available for rental, according to legal experts.

"All of the laws that were written in the Great Depression era and the civil rights era were written with a particular sort of society in mind," Veena Dubal, a professor of law at the University of California, Hastings, told The Guardian. "Now everything looks so different."

In addition, these contractors aren't employees, which makes it harder for companies to manage their behavior or ensure that they are inline with company policies, experts say.

"It's hard enough to instill corporate culture even with face-to-face contact, so there's a special challenge here," Todd Solomon, a lawyer with McDermott Will & Emery LLP in Chicago, who isn't involved in the case, told Bloomberg. "They have no idea if somebody who registers a rental home has any interest in sharing their core values or whether they even know about their core values."

Airbnb has a published anti-discrimination policy stating it will "prohibit content that promotes discrimination, bigotry, racism, hatred, harassment or harm against any individual or group," and requires "all users to comply with local laws and regulations."

Selden, who tweeted his experience, says that an Airbnb host in Philadelphia named Paul rejected his request to be an Airbnb guest. After being turned down and continuing his search for lodgings on the website, Selden was shocked to see that Paul's home was still listed as available during the dates he had requested. He later created two phony profiles using pictures of white men named "Jessie" and "Todd" and sent two separate queries about availability to Paul. Selden says that he got positive responses from Paul to both of the requests indicating that the place was available.

Quirtina Crittenden, who first started the hashtag in July 2015 after going through the a similar experience, told NPR that she had to change her profile picture to a nature landscape and shorten her name to Tina, to make it white-sounding, before she could be accepted as a guest.

"The hosts would always come up with excuses like, oh, someone actually just booked it, or, oh, some of my regulars are coming in town, and they're going stay there; I just haven't updated my calendar," Ms. Crittenden told NPR. "But I got suspicious when I would check back, like, days later and see that those dates were still available."

But the multiple stories are hardly shocking. A recent study conducted by Harvard Business School found that Airbnb hosts were 16 percent less likely to accept guests with African-American sounding names than guests with white-sounding names (A companion study found that black hosts charge 12 percent less than white hosts even when the properties were equivalent in terms of quality and location.)

While difficult to hold the company liable for the discriminatory practices of Airbnb hosts, experts have suggested tactics that may solve the discrimination problem. Last December, some researchers unveiled Debias Yourself, a Web browser plugin that lets hosts view requests from potential guests while hiding the real names and pictures of the guests.

"This way, the host can review and accept guest requests on a nondiscriminatory basis, considering a guest's request on the merits (such as dates, number of people, and purpose of the visit) without information that conveys race, gender, or age (such as name and photograph)," the researchers write on the site "In future versions, we will add support for other online marketplaces."

But Airbnb is resisting this suggestion, saying the change would bring safety concerns.

"Profile photos are an important part of our community and are one of the many tools that help hosts and guests connect with one another," David King who was recently got hired as the company's director of diversity and belonging, said to Vox in an e-mail. Airbnb "recognize[s] that bias and discrimination present significant challenges, and we are taking steps to address them.... We welcome the opportunity to work with anyone that can help us reduce potential discrimination in the Airbnb community."

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