Two months ago a pair of French tourists went to check in at their Airbnb rental in Southeast D.C. What would happen next would be unusual to them, but all too familiar for their host.
The French couple’s Airbnb rental was a basement apartment in Congress Heights. It was a warm Sunday night on August 8, and they chose to walk. But being tourists from out of town, they got lost.
The couple decided to ask a police offer for directions.
Soon afterwards their Airbnb host Akosua Genora Reed saw a police car pull up to her home in Congress Heights and the tourists got out to talk to her.
“The police said this wasn’t a safe neighborhood and they shouldn’t stay there,” Reed told us of what her French guests said to her. They did not stay the night. Reed learned they cancelled their rental on the way over.
Reed would go on to write a complaint letter to the police captain, another to her city councilmember and another to Airbnb. But there was no way to recoup her guests, or her business, for the night.
“I’m a resident and tax paying citizen and I can’t get an escort to my house at night,” Reed, who is African American, said during a phone call with us. “But my white European guests can.”
For Hosts, a Pattern of Cancellations
Incidents of racial bias while using Airbnb led to a viral hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack last summer. A few months later some users raised concerns that people of color were also vulnerable to racial bias while hosting on Airbnb.
— charlie conway (@QUE_REALigion) May 5, 2016
Last year we spoke to local host Synta Keeling who was particularly concerned about a new anti-discrimination policy might hurt hosts of color. Two weeks ago we caught up with Keeling – who is half-Filipino and half-African American – and two other hosts of color to learn if any improvements had been made over the past year. For all three hosts of color, cancellation stories like Akosua Reed’s were familiar.
Christina Washington, for instance, is a real estate agent and African American Airbnb host in Randall Heights. She recalled many cancellations to us, one recent example being guests who cancelled on their way from the airport because their Uber driver warned them about her neighborhood.
“Nothing ever happened with anyone in the neighborhood,” Washington, an Airbnb superhost, told us over the phone. “The only thing I could ever suggest was that people saw a lot of Black people walking around, probably more than they were used to, and that triggered the automatic ‘oh this is an unsafe area’ response.”
Keeling, a FOIA officer, is also a Superhost. She shared stories of her Airbnb guests cancelling under similar circumstances, and also of guests who made, “unfortunate racial references” to her. Like Akosua Reed and Washington, Keeling said these experiences made her wary of using Airbnb’s “Instant Booking” feature. Airbnb describes the feature as a way to, “Book guests without having to respond to each request.”
But Keeling says racial bias can make trusting the guests you get over Instant Booking difficult for hosts of color. During a panel discussion between hosts of color and Airbnb representatives at the Congressional Black Caucus this fall, Keeling mentioned how Instant Booking can expose hosts to racist guests and cancellations.
“I explained the importance of vetting and making sure it’s really and truly a good match and that they have the right expectations,” Keeling told us,” Keeling said. “And I can’t ask those questions over Instant Booking.”
One way Keeling – and Washington, and Reed – have tried to vet guests on their own is by describing what they offer in their listing description. All three told us they use phrases like “majority-minority neighborhood”, “urban”, “gentrifying”, “working class”, or “transformative” to alert guests their neighborhood is predominately African American. But the hosts feel there’s only so much they can do.
“We had guests explicitly state that they didn’t feel safe because there are so many people of color,” Reed said to us. “I can’t help you with that. That’s who we are.”
It’s a situation they said also hurts their bottom line, which is a critical paycheck for them.
Akosua Genora Reed, who is a senior performance analyist in D.C. is also a superhost. She and her husband depend on their Airbnb income. “It’s how we pay our mortgage,” she said. “If we want to take a vacation we use our Airbnb income. It’s our retirement as well. It’s a really good extra income.”
Washington credits her family’s income through Airbnb with “literally helping us pay our mortgage.” This contributes to her frustration with guests who cancel citing danger when she says none exists. “We wouldn’t put your safety in jeopardy,” said Washington.
How does Airbnb’s tech team feature in?
Keeling and Washington both described Airbnb as “receptive” to their complains about incidents of racial bias as hosts.
A company representative told us Airbnb now has a team dedicated to addressing issues on the platform like this. “We have an entire product team that is dedicated to fighting discrimination,” they wrote in an e-mail to us.
Some of this awareness is thanks to last year’s hashtag #AirBnbWhileBlack, which led the company to investigate with civil rights activist and former ACLU legislative office director Laura Murphy. Murphy released a 32-page report last fall, writing in it that there was “room for improvement in the Airbnb platform on this issue,” and suggested taking actions such as strengthening their non-discrimination policy, placing less emphasis on photos, encouraging guests to use Instant Book and diversifying their workforce.
The report does not mention discrimination against hosts, except to note that hosts “also want freedom to determine who stays in their home.” The recommendations in the report are part of what led to Airbnb’s revised anti-discrimination policy.
Keeling’s main contention with these recommendations last year was that they promoted Instant Booking, which helped guests of color, but not hosts of color. Now she says the company has made some strides toward addressing that. Soon after her panel discussion, she said Airbnb released a feature to allow hosts to require guests answer a list of questions provided by Airbnb during Instant Booking – like “What brings you to D.C.?” According to Keeling, hosts were also allowed to add a custom question to the list. ”
“I was so shocked to see that. That was not there before,” she said. She remains cautiously optimistic. “It kind of forced people to be on notice about the things that were important to you. But it’s still problematic,” she said.
Keeling, Washington and Reed said over the past year they have requested Airbnb implement three other changes to help hosts like them out:
- Ensure guests read neighborhood descriptions before booking
- Don’t show host’s photo until after the guest has booked
- Highlight positive aspects of their neighborhoods in the app– such as local arts communities
Where do Hosts go from here?
The representative from Airbnb also told is an e-mail that, “We have absolutely remained receptive to community feedback and regularly meet with our hosts and civil rights leaders to hear their feedback.”
The company has followed through on that with their revised policies to protect guests of color with new anti-discrimination policies, local home-sharing clubs where hosts can talk to each other, and wider events like last month’s panel with hosts and the Congressional Black Caucus. But overall, the optimism that Airbnb can protect hosts of color from discrimination varied between the three women we spoke to.
Keeling said that she was more “cheery and positive” about Airbnb than other hosts of color that she knew. But for her the representatives’ responsiveness was key. “I think they do look at the comments you make on their community center, or when you email them, and they do implement them,” she said.
Reed, on other hand, told us she is now trying to host more guests through Black-friendly platforms like Innclusive, which we profiled last summer. “I haven’t seen any direct results from [Airbnb’s] efforts to minimize discrimination,” she told us. “There’s no recourse. There just needs to be greater accountability.”
Washington agreed Airbnb needs to make more changes, but added the onus to fix racism had to be on society, not a company. “I wouldn’t consider it problems with Airbnb. I would consider it a social construct seen through Airbnb,” she said.