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​​​​​​​As Black Travelers Turn Away, Airbnb Creates New Anti-Bias Policies

The new guidelines are a step in the right direction, but black leisure consumers may not wait around for the company to make things right.

Ashley Warmington, CEO of Cozy Oasis, sits in the living room of a property that she manages listings for in New York. Warmington is partnering with the anti-racist lodging website Noirbnb. (Bebeto Matthews/AP)

It appears that the short-term rental company Airbnb has heard African Americans’ complaints about discrimination in their services, grievances aired publicly over Twitter and in media outlets including The Root. On Thursday, Airbnb announced new guidelines for their members on how to reduce racial biases that leave African Americans with fewer opportunities to enjoy the service.

Wrote Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky in a letter to his members Thursday:

Discrimination is the opposite of belonging, and its existence on our platform jeopardizes this core mission. Bias and discrimination have no place on Airbnb, and we have zero tolerance for them. Unfortunately, we have been slow to address these problems, and for this I am sorry. I take responsibility for any pain or frustration this has caused members of our community. We will not only make this right; we will work to set an example that other companies can follow.

The company issued a 32-page report that details the new changes. Its lead author is Laura Murphy, a former American Civil Liberties Union attorney, who Airbnb called in for a diagnostic check of its policies. Other civil rights heavy-hitters, including former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and the president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Wade Henderson, also contributed to the report. The new Airbnb rules boil down to four major changes the company is asking its members to abide by to root out racial discrimination in Airbnb rentals:  

  • Requiring all Airbnb hosts to sign a “Airbnb Community Commitment,” which is described in Chesky’s letter as “a stronger, more detailed nondiscrimination policy.” It pledges that all members are to be treated “with respect, and without judgment or bias,” regardless of their race, religion, sex, or gender.  
  • Instituting a new “Open Doors” policy that obligates Airbnb to accommodate any guest who reports discrimination—past, present, or future. Airbnb has pledged to find  “a similar place to stay if one is available on Airbnb, or ... an alternative accommodation elsewhere” for anyone filing such a complaint.
  • Expanding the Airbnb option called “Instant Book,” which makes a host’s home available immediately upon booking, without the host having to approve the guest ahead of time.
  • Making an anti-bias training available to Airbnb members, with Airbnb publicly acknowledging those who chose to complete the course.

The “Open Doors” policy seems a bit superficial in that it doesn’t seem to do much to actually correct the racism: There is no stated penalty for those who actually discriminate, nor anything that disincentivizes discrimination to begin with. The company offers to find the offended guests alternative accommodations, but those guests would end up in a place that was not their preferred choice anyway.  

The “Instant Book” and anti-bias trainings sound like promising steps, but it will be interesting to see how many members actually volunteer for them. Other steps mentioned in the report, like reducing the use of members’ photos in the Airbnb booking function could also offer some reassurance.

These are important first steps, but there is likely more needed to thoroughly weed out the “widespread discrimination against African-American guests,” that Harvard researchers found in Airbnb services back in January.

“There are still additional factors at play here and policies to establish in the new system,” says Sherrell Dorsey, founder of the daily black tech newsletter ThePLUG, who has written about Airbnb alternatives for African Americans. “For instance, if customers are able to instantly book a place without the need for host approval, what happens to that customer if they arrive on someone's doorstep who refuses to let them in or worse? I'd like to understand more of the thinking behind the long game and what the company is doing to ensure safety for all of their users.”

Part of the impetus for this new initiative may be that Airbnb is losing customers to new home-sharing services like Innclusive and Noirbnb, which cater directly to people of color for short-term rental services. Chesky admits in his letter that his company “has been slow on this issue” of rental discrimination, but some African Americans aren’t waiting around for Airbnb to figure it out. As with most things, black leisure is not dependent upon white approval.

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