Airbnb helps millions of people find short-term rentals, but a new study finds that not everyone may be getting equal consideration on the service.
Hosts are less likely to rent to people with black-sounding names than those with white-sounding names, despite having identical profiles, according to a new study from the Harvard Business School. The issue belies the promise of online platforms like Airbnb, which have attracted fans in part because they promote convenient and quick transactions, often without knowing much about the person on the other side of the Internet connection.
The race issue with Airbnb arises from its requirement that guests post their first names. Photos are also required, but users can put up nonidentifying images such as animals or icons. In the study, the researchers created 20 Airbnb accounts, some with white-sounding names like Brad or Kristen and some with black-sounding names such as Tamika or Jamal. Other than the names, the profiles were identical (and the researchers didn't use photos of the supposed guests).
The researchers then inquired about 6,400 listings in five cities.
"African-American guests received a positive response roughly 42 percent of the time, compared to roughly 50 percent for white guests," the researchers said. "This 8 percentage point (roughly 16 percent) penalty for African-American guests is particularly noteworthy when compared to the discrimination-free setting of competing short-term accommodation platforms such as Expedia."
The study alone might not indicate anything inherently racist about the Airbnb format itself. Instead, the one-on-one interactions appear to allow people to express their own prejudices.
Airbnb said it's "committed to making Airbnb one of the most open, trusted, diverse, transparent communities in the world," a spokesman said.
"We recognize that bias and discrimination are significant challenges, and we welcome the opportunity to work with anyone that can help us reduce potential discrimination in the Airbnb community," he said. "We are in touch with the authors of this study, and we look forward to a continuing dialogue with them."
As the researchers noted, Airbnb is an attractive tool for examining online racism because it provides both breadth and transparency. Previous research in Sweden involving resumes of people with Arab or Muslim-sounding names versus those with Swedish names didn't examine the race of the person actually reading the resume.
Airbnb allowed the researchers to jump over that hurdle, given that hosts also post their names and personal photos. That let the researchers figure out whether the prejudice was coming only from white hosts, for instance.
So, was the racism limited only to whites? Actually, no. The researchers found that both black and white hosts discriminated against people with black-sounding names. The apparent bias also held across genders, whether the homeowner was renting out a room or an entire property, regardless of price and in both diverse and racially homogeneous neighborhoods.
It's not the first time that the Harvard researchers have tapped into a vein of apparent racism running through Airbnb's hosts. A 2014 study from the same team found that nonblack hosts are able to command a higher premium for their properties than black hosts, even when the properties are similar in quality and location.
It's not only blacks who are getting squeezed: The same authors found in a separate study that Asian hosts tend to earn 20 percent less per week than white hosts, after examining rentals in Berkeley and Oakland, California.
There's also a downside for property owners who turn down bookings from black customers, the newest study found. By skipping out on a potential guest because of racial assumptions, the host can sometimes fail to find another guest to fill the calendar, ending up with a loss of $65 to $100 in revenue.
"With the rise of the sharing economy, however, comes a level of racial discrimination that is unheard of in a hotel," the researchers noted. "Clearly, the manager of a Holiday Inn cannot examine names of potential guests and reject them based on race. Yet, this is commonplace on Airbnb, which now accounts for a growing share of the hotel market."
There are ways around the bias, the researchers added. Airbnb could conceal guests' names, for instance, or use pseudonyms similar to those used on eBay.
Legal recourses are another possibility. Because online marketplaces have legal protections, it's unlikely that Airbnb might be held liable. But some hosts -- those with multiple properties or rooms -- might find themselves in the legal crosshairs because the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in hotels, the paper noted.