#AirbnbWhileBlack has become an all-too-frequent reminder on social media of some of the issues facing people of color when they book on Airbnb.
Accounts of hosts canceling or refusing bookings because of race are prompting two rival services to address what they believe are the shortcomings of Airbnb, the short-term rental and house-sharing service. Aside from real-life examples of bias, researchers have found that Airbnb hosts are less likely to rent to people with black-sounding names than those with white-sounding names.
Noirbnb co-founders Stefan Grant and Ronnia Cherry said the genesis of their upcoming service began last year when they rented an Airbnb in Atlanta, and neighbors called the police in the mistaken belief that they had broken into the house. Grant took a good-natured selfie with the police that went viral and drew the attention of Airbnb, which reached out to talk with them about diversity.
But Grant and Cherry said they grew frustrated with what they perceived as a lack of real changes, so they decided to create their own site.
"We like Airbnb, and their service is incredible, but the response we've gotten proves that wow, this is a big issue," Cherry said, referring to interest from prospective guests and hosts. "The fact so many people have hit us up and responded positively shows this problem is even bigger than we thought it was."
While Cherry and Grant are working on Noirbnb, another startup called Noirebnb (with an "e" after "noir") is aiming to provide the same solution to Airbnb's race issues.
Airbnb said it isn't shying away from confronting racism on its site. CEO Brian Chesky said in a speech at the company's annual tech conference on Wednesday that it has "zero tolerance" for bias and prejudice on its service.
"In the next months, we will be revisiting the design of our site from end to end to see how we can create a more inclusive platform," he said. "We're open to ideas. It's a really, really hard problem, and we need help solving it."
He added, "We take this seriously."
Neither Noirebnb nor Noirbnb are yet open for business, so it's not clear how their technology or features will vary from what Airbnb offers, other than attracting a diverse customer base for both guests and hosts. One suggestion from Harvard researchers who studied bias on Airbnb is to conceal guests' names or use pseudonyms similar to what's used on eBay (EBAY), but that would defeat the purpose of the rental site, Grant said.
"We're building a community and want an air of transparency," he said. "It's cool to connect and see someone and speak to someone before you go to their house." Blind names "would take a big part away of the community aspect."
Grant said he and Cherry have been approached by "people of all walks of life" about investing in Noirbnb. They started it by raising money among family and friends, and they plan to contact more investors as the site enters beta testing.
"If this is the world you want to be a part of," he said, "then you know that discrimination is left at the door."