Home-sharing services like Airbnb and Vrbo market themselves as platforms for sharing, community and joy. Their advertisements show guests of varying ethnic backgrounds gathering happily in sunny houses, seeming to feel at home — or even better, on vacation.
But some people of color — particularly Black guests — say that despite the policies and partnerships that home-sharing platforms have put into place, they still face discrimination when booking or staying in vacation rentals. They are frustrated by what they say is a lack of understanding and accountability.
In a report released on Tuesday, Airbnb acknowledged the issues and provided the first public data on the steps it has taken to reduce racial disparities, including removing some human factors from the booking process.
Laura Murphy, a civil rights expert who has directed the Washington legislative office for the American Civil Liberties Union and is now a senior adviser to Airbnb, wrote the report. It reveals some of what has been learned from Project Lighthouse, an effort that was publicly started in 2020by Airbnband Color of Change, an online anti-discrimination group, to use internal company data to measure patterns of discrimination.
The report focuses primarily on what the company calls its booking success rate, a measure of how often guests are able to make the reservations they want on Airbnb. Past research has shown that guests whom hosts perceive to be Black are more likely to have their booking requests rejected than are those perceived as white.
Since 2016, the company has required all guests and hosts to agree to its Community Commitment, to “agree to treat each other with respect and without judgment or bias,” and to adhere to a nondiscrimination policy.
In 2018, Airbnb stopped showing guests’ photos to Airbnb hosts before a reservation was confirmed; that move has “slightly increased” the rate at which Black guests are able to book homes, the report said. Allowing more guests to use the so-called Instant Book feature, which lets individual users make reservations without being specifically approved by the host, has also been effective.
Still, guests who are perceived to be white (Airbnb users aren’t asked to identify their race; Project Lighthouse uses data that determines the race someone might associate with a first name and a profile photo to measure possible discrimination) are able to get the rental they want 94.1 percent of the time. Asian and Latino renters have success rates just below that, while guests perceived to be Black get their choices 91.4 percent of the time. The data does not measure discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation.
To close that remaining gap, the company said it was testing changes to guest and host profile pages; enabling even more people to use Instant Book; allowing guests who aren’t the primary account holders to receive reviews in order to accumulate more of them for guests of color, who tend to be newer uses of the platform; and beefing up its ability to audit reservation rejections.
“This is not the beginning of our journey,” said Janaye Ingram, Airbnb’s director of community partner programs and engagement. “It’s also not the end of our journey. We’re excited to be on this journey of addressing discrimination. It has no place in our platform and in our community.”
The report is vaguer about what the company is doing to oversee hosts and guests who show bias after a home is booked. A number of Black home-share guests have complained on social media about how they’ve been treated, and The New York Times interviewed a half dozen who shared their accounts of what they believed to be racism on the part of hosts.
A family trip disrupted
Tecsia Evans, a psychologist in Oakland, Calif., who is Black, traveled to New Orleans in July 2021 for four nightswith her husband, mother and two young children. Before booking their Airbnb, she told the host that the trip was for her mother’s 75th birthday and confirmed that they could have relatives over.
The first night, the host, who lived in the bottom of the two-unit building, complained that Ms. Evans’s children were making noise at 11 p.m. The next day, over the platform she said she would like quiet hours starting at 10 p.m. Their interactions were polite.
On the third day, Ms. Evans’s family ran into the host. They had a brief conversation during which, Ms. Evans said, she suggested that any restrictions be included in the house rules, so guests would know about them beforehand.
That night, Ms. Evans invited her three sisters and two nephews over for dinner. At 9:30 p.m., Airbnb contacted her: The family had to leave. The company wouldn’t explain why and, Ms. Evans said, ignored her requests to speak with a supervisor. Airbnb later told her that the host said she’d thrown a party, which was against the rules. The company refunded one night of the stay to Ms. Evans and suspended her account for 90 days.
Ms. Evans, who believes that the host treated her unfairly because she is Black, said she called the company more than 30 times and sent a letter to Airbnb’s chief executive, Brian Chesky. She provided photos of her 10-person dinner and a large framed map of area plantations that hung over the sofa; she felt it celebrated slavery and indicated the host’s mind-set.
The host did not respond to interview requests. In a heated interaction on the Airbnb app the day after she evicted Ms. Evans, the host told her, “Some of my best and dearest friends happen to be African American, Gay and Lesbian, and even a person who has transitioned. This has absolutely nothing to do with the color of your or my skin.”
At different points, Airbnb told Ms. Evans it was investigating — or that it had investigated and sided with the host. She persisted, and six months later received a full refund.
The company later banned “the promotion of slavery-related features as a selling point of a stay.”
Ben Breit, the global director of trust communications for Airbnb, said that the company took Ms. Evans’s complaint seriously, completed a thorough investigation and took disciplinary action against the host. Ms. Evans was told in September that the host received a warning.
In the report, the company said it has a specialized customer support team that is “highly trained to handle and investigate claims of discrimination” and that it has grown over the years. Separately, Airbnb said that when a reported case of discrimination is complex or not clear-cut, customer support will loop in other groups, such as the legal team or community policy team, to ensure multiple viewpoints are heard. In cases where the host’s motives aren’t clearly rooted in bias, it starts by educating them.
Airbnb and other vacation rental companies can be in a difficult position when they try to root out racist behavior after the fact, especially in cases where the bias isn’t made explicit. Black guests say what they experience can be hard to document. Friendly online exchanges turn chilly when hosts see guests’ faces; they are subjected to arbitrary rules or false accusations. Home-sharing companies often have to adjudicate conflicting accounts of what took place with little documentation.
In the report, Airbnb said it had recently made it easier for guests who feel they are being discriminated against to book an alternate listing through the company’s 24-hour safety line, part of what it calls its AirCoverprogram. Agents on the safety line “will offer help in finding an alternative space right away and will be able to refund or rebook the guest as preferred,” the report says. The company also said it was making it easier for guests to report discrimination before or after a trip.
This year, Airbnb also created an online guide, “How to Be an Even More Inclusive Host,” that covers issues like implicit bias. In it, the Harvard University social psychologist Robert W. Livingston explains that people are more likely to discriminate, even unconsciously, in situations that are ambiguous — where they can attribute their decisions to factors other than race.
Not the only one
Airbnb is the largest company in the vacation-rental industry, but it’s not the only one wrestling with discrimination. Vrbo, which is part of the Expedia Group, has also taken steps to combat bias, including educating hosts, creating more diverse and inclusive marketing campaigns, and requiring that words such as “plantation” be used without celebrating slavery. Every listing has a “Report This Property” link that lets users identify problems, which are reviewed and escalated to Vrbo’s trust and safety team, if appropriate, the company said.
“We’ve removed photos and last names from profiles, things that past studies have shown can contribute to discriminatory behavior,” said Melanie Fish, the head of global public relations for Expedia Group Brands. “We have a full-time trust and safety team working on rooting out discriminatory behaviors and also reacting when guests and hosts report bad actors to us.”
Still, in April 2021, Dallas and Shirley Smith, who are Black, said they encountered racism when they booked a garage apartment in Montgomery, Ala., for a weekend to celebrate their 55th wedding anniversary. Vrbo does not require guests to have a profile photo. When the Smiths arrived and called the host for an entry code, he told them they had to leave — the apartment was rented to someone else. Mr. Smith pointed out that it appeared to be vacant.
“He said, ‘I can’t rent to you,’” before hanging up, recalled Mr. Smith, 80, a former U.S. Department of Agriculture official. The Smiths believe that when the host saw that they were Black, he changed his mind about renting to them. The host could not be reached for comment.
The Smiths aren’t strangers to racism. Traveling in the South in the 1960s, they packed a shoe box of food and patronized only hotel and gas station chains that had adopted nondiscrimination policies. But they had barely experienced it in their journeys since, to 54 countries and 50 states.
“It kind of snapped us back 50 years,” Mr. Smith said.
The Smiths’ daughter called Vrbo and was told that the company would look into the situation and that she should call back on a weekday; it did not offer to rebook her parents, she said. The Smiths ended their celebration trip early. Vrbo soon refunded their money without an explanation or an apology, they said.
The company investigates complaints on parallel paths, Ms. Fish said, connecting with hosts and guests to try to determine what happened, but it first takes care of the guests, booking them in a place where they feel safe. Contrary to the Smiths’ daughter’s recollection, she said the Smiths were offered an alternate accommodation but declined.
“We definitely take any reports of discrimination seriously,” Ms. Fish said. “One bad experience means it’s not eliminated.”
Vrbo says that fewer than 1 percent of the customer calls it receives each year involve discrimination.
Progress against discrimination
The new Airbnb report is part of an effort that was touched off by a Harvard Business School experiment made public in 2015 that revealed that Airbnb booking requests from fictional guests with “Black-sounding” names were far less likely to get a response than inquiries from “white” ones. Travelers began sharing their own experiences on social media, often with the hashtag #airbnbwhileblack. Some said they were regularly rejected for reservations — or even turned down by a host while white friends were later accepted for the same dates. Others were subjected to racist profanities. In one incident in Atlanta that year, armed police officers confronted two Black Airbnb guests when neighbors reported them as possible burglars.
In 2016, Airbnb commissioned Ms. Murphy to conduct an audit of its antidiscrimination efforts. In response, the company made substantial changes, including creating the team focused on rooting out bias, teaming up with racial-justice organizations such as the N.A.A.C.P. and Color of Change, and introducing the policy to find alternative lodging for guests who report discrimination.
The company says that since 2016 it has removed or denied access to more than 2.5 million users who refused to sign its Community Commitment, including 544,000 in 2021.
“They’re putting their money where their mouth is,” Ms. Murphy said. “There are companies that say, ‘We put policies in place,’ but they’re still taking money from people who do wrong.”
Airbnb says it is proud of the progress it has made to address the discrimination and bias on its platform over the past six years. “There is much more work to do,” the company said in the report. “As long as bias and discrimination occur in the world, and on our platform, we will continue to fight it.”
Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, agreed that the company had taken meaningful steps. “Airbnb is not a perfect company, but they’ve certainly been better than many other companies,” he said.
The platform should provide more public-facing reporting on discrimination, he added. That’s especially important as people’s behavior evolves to evade rules.
“Racism is like water pouring over a floor,” he said. “It will always find the holes and the cracks.”
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