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Study finds racial discrimination by Airbnb hosts, including in Baltimore

Bloomberg//Rebecca Greenfield//December 10, 2015

Study finds racial discrimination by Airbnb hosts, including in Baltimore

By Bloomberg

//Rebecca Greenfield

//December 10, 2015

The lack of anonymity on Airbnb may lead to persistent racial discrimination, a working paper from Harvard Business School found. Renters with names that sounded African American had a harder time booking reservations on the site than those who had white-sounding names, according to the study.

Researchers set up 6,400 fake profiles of Airbnb guests and assigned them stereotypically white or black names, based on Massachusetts birth certificate data from the 1970s. None of the guest profiles had identifying pictures. They used the accounts to request bookings with hosts in five cities: Baltimore, Dallas, Los Angeles, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C. Airbnb hosts decide whom they want to rent to; requests from white guests got “yes” responses 50 percent of the time, vs. 42 percent for black applicants. The researchers controlled for a variety of factors, such as the host’s gender and ratings, and the “race effect,” as the paper described it, persisted.

“Life is tough if you’re a black guest on Airbnb,” said Ben Edelman, an associate professor at HBS and one of the study’s authors. “Particularly when you compare it to the baseline of the way things used to be. If you’re a black guest, you just make a reservation at the Marriott.”

For its part, Airbnb says it doesn’t support discrimination. “Airbnb is one of the most open, trusted, diverse, transparent communities in the world,” a spokesperson said in a statement sent to Bloomberg. “We respond quickly to any concerns raised by hosts or guests, and we have a zero- tolerance policy for discrimination on our platform.”

The paper comes from the same researchers who in 2014 discovered racial discrimination against hosts. That study found nonblack renters could charge 12 percent more, on average, holding everything else constant. The differential in the new study is less stark, but still statistically significant, Edelman said. “Anything more than zero is something we should aspire to fix,” he said.

In both cases, the researchers suggested Airbnb’s design is the culprit, as real-name policies can lead to bias. Studies have found similar discrimination toward black-sounding names in hiring, for example. Airbnb could, however, fix the problem by anonymizing profiles. The site “could conceal guest names,” the researchers wrote in the paper. “Communications on eBay’s platform have long used pseudonyms and automatic salutations, so Airbnb could easily implement that approach.” The authors also suggested that Airbnb expand Instant Book, a feature that allows hosts to accept guests without prescreening. Airbnb says Instant Book is used in 1 in 5 listings, up from 1 in 12 in 2014.

Airbnb currently requires all hosts to include profile pictures and urges its users to fill out detailed personal profiles. From the site’s help center: “When your profile is robust, it helps others feel that you’re reliable, authentic, and committed to the spirit of Airbnb. Whether you’re a host or a guest, the more complete your profile, the more reservations you’re likely to book, too.” That is, unfortunately, more true for some hosts and guests than it is for others.


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