Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
The NAACP would like to see more African Americans participating in the Airbnb rental market—is that a good thing?
In 2012, the NAACP lamented in its Opportunity and Diversity Report Card on the hotel industry that “African Americans are ... less likely to own, run, or provide goods and services to a lodging property, or be represented on the governing bodies of these corporations.”
Today, a partnership inked between Airbnb and the NAACP seems like a chance to reverse those racial misfortunes. While Airbnb doesn’t turn people into traditional hoteliers, it allows homeowners to run their homes like hotels. The NAACP has identified this as a positive thing for black communities, and under its partnership with Airbnb it hopes to accelerate African-American participation in the home-sharing network.
Under the new joint venture, local NAACP chapters will launch grassroots outreach campaigns to educate African Americans about how to become Airbnb hosts. For every new host that the NAACP brings in, Airbnb will share 20 percent of its revenue from those newcomers with the civil rights organization. The NAACP will also help diversify Airbnb’s company staff and contract supplier base.
The calculus behind this coupling is that some of Airbnb’s largest market growth is lately appearing in majority-African-American communities. The announcement reads:
Up to 50 percent of guest spending occurs in the neighborhoods where guests stay and communities of color are some of the fastest growing neighborhoods in the Airbnb community. A 2016 study of the New York City host community found that the number of Airbnb guests grew 78 percent year-over-year in the 30 city zip codes with the highest percentage of black residents, compared to 50 percent city-wide. Similar studies of Airbnb host communities in Chicago’s South Side and Washington, DC’s Anacostia neighborhood found even higher rates of growth.
The announcement and its rationale raise some questions and concerns. For one, the fact that Airbnb is growing fastest in black communities is not universally seen as a good thing. It’s definitely not viewed that way by many fair housing activists who have been criticizing Airbnb for years, accusing the company of helping reduce potential affordable housing supply. Other activists have accused Airbnb of accelerating gentrification.
But according to NAACP interim president Derrick Johnson, Airbnb actually shields black communities from gentrification.
“This gives an opportunity for African Americans and also other communities of color to save their houses,” says Johnson. “With gentrification taking place in these communities across the country we’re finding that the urban core is becoming very valuable real estate. Individuals on fixed income are unable in many cases to keep pace with the increased burden of taxes and insurance, and so this gives then an economic opportunity to participate in an emerging economy, while at the same time develop levels of economic security so that they can actually save their homes.”
This is true if you are a homeowner. The most seductive part of Airbnb is the fact that you can turn your home not just into a side-hustle, but a genuine wealth generator. Renting your home through Airbnb for just a few days could be enough to cover one’s mortgage and then some, freeing up day-job income for other investments and luxuries. But you can only take advantage of this, with few exceptions, if you actually own your home. If you’re a renter looking for a permanent dwelling, the Airbnb-ified room, apartment, or house is just one less unit available to you. Since rental demands outstrip housing supply in pretty much every urban market, that typically means that rental costs for available housing are driven up.
“Even if some African-American homeowners and property owners are able to increase their income through Airbnb, it's not clear that increased access to home sharing through online platforms will counteract the negative effects of inflated home prices.”says Cashauna Hill, executive director of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center. There’s been an intense fight within New Orleans over how Airbnb should operate there given the affordable housing needs there. “In New Orleans, the neighborhoods most likely to attract new hosts are the neighborhoods on the edge of gentrification.”
Hill added: “While it's encouraging is that Airbnb wants to ensure that people of color have increased access to the vacation rental market as housing providers, it's imperative that Airbnb also prioritize equal access to short-term rentals for consumers.”
In Johnson’s view, “There are pros and cons to the question of housing development, and always will be. For us, the reason why we see the value of this partnership is because it allows more African Americans to participate and not lose their homes. We are clear that we have a housing stock problem in many urban core cities. There’s nothing we could do other than making sure that existing homeowners in urban core cities could figure out ways not to lose their property.”
Then there’s a separate concern: Reports of Airbnb hosts discriminating against people of color by refusing to rent to them. The home-share company has taken several steps to root out that kind of racism, and a recent civil rights settlement in California sent a strong message that Airbnb is serious about penalizing those who choose to discriminate. Johnson said this is also what brought Airbnb to NAACP’s table. He explains that one of the top drivers of the racial wealth gap is African Americans losing their homes and properties, and that alone justifies the Airbnb partnership.
Says Johnson, “What we’ve seen over time are economic gaps increasing between the richest 1 percent and the 99 percent, but for African Americans it’s even more accelerated. The number one cause for that acceleration is the loss of value in [African-American] homes. We see this as a way to stop that trend and allow individuals to appreciate a growth market around the asset that they currently have. We’re trying to stop the bleeding and that massive loss of wealth in the black community.”