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Thousands of Airbnb Hosts Are Violating Anti-Discrimination Laws

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

You can rent everything from a yurt, to a fold-out couch, to a castle on Airbnb, the online marketplace for peer-to-peer short-term rentals. But you might have a harder time renting if a host thinks you're African-American.

A new paper by three Harvard researchers shows that discrimination against black Airbnb renters is widespread on Airbnb -- often in violation of state and federal anti-discrimination laws.

A Rental by Any Other Name ...

Airbnb lets pretty much anyone post lodging on the Airbnb site and just about anyone can request a short-term rental. Though not as face-to-face as meeting with a landlord or speaking to a hotel attendant, Airbnb rentals are not anonymous. When a request is sent, hosts see a potential renter's name, picture, reviews and often a personalized message.

To investigate discrimination in the sharing economy, researchers from Harvard Business School asked about the availability of roughly 6,400 Airbnb listings across five cities. Benjamin Edelman, Michael Luca, and Dan Svirsky used one set of distinctively African-American names for some requests, and another set of distinctively white names for others. Aside from their names, the potential renters were identical.

Those fictional renters were not treated identically by hosts, however. Black guests received a positive response (yes, rent my spare bedroom!) 42 percent of the time. White guests got a thumbs up 50 percent of the time. That penalty placed on black guests, the study concludes, demonstrates "widespread discrimination against African-American guests." It's particularly noteworthy, the authors explain, when compared with more traditional hotel-booking platforms like Expedia or Kayak, where no racial penalty exists.

That discrimination is also in line with previous studies on Airbnb. Last year, Eidelman and Luca found that that black Airbnb hosts often faced discrimination from renters; that difference led black hosts to charge 12 percent less than non-black hosts in order to attract customers.

Legally speaking, however, the latest report is much more significant. Consumers are generally free to discriminate. Landlords and public accommodations aren't, yet that illegal discrimination appears rife throughout Airbnb listings.

Is Everyone on Airbnb Breaking the Law?

The study would seem to indicate that many Airbnb hosts are acting in violation of federal and state anti-discrimination laws. The Civil Rights Act, for example, prohibits discrimination in public accommodations. The Fair Housing Act also bans racial discrimination by housing providers, as do many state laws.

Many Airbnb hosts would be exempt from these laws, due to the small size of their rentals, but many would not be. Large hosts and rental managers are common on Airbnb, despite most rentals' "mom and pop" looks. That means that liability, not just discrimination, might be widespread throughout the Airbnb platform.

Airbnb hasn't taken much of stance on preventing unlawful discrimination on its website. Airbnb's Anti-Discrimination Policy consists of a little more than a pledge to remove "content that promotes discrimination," and a reminder that "as a host, you should be familiar with the laws that apply to you and your listing."

But Eidelman and company thing that just a few changes could have a big impact. They conclude their paper with the following:

One clear policy implication is that regulators may want to audit Airbnb hosts using an approach based on our paper -- much like longstanding efforts to reduce discrimination in offline rental markets. One might have hoped that online markets would cure discrimination, and it seems a different design might indeed do so. Regrettably, our analysis indicates that at Airbnb, this is not yet the case.

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