Rohan Gilkes, an African-American entrepreneur, tried to book lodging for his summer vacation this July through Airbnb, a popular worldwide home-sharing company that allows people to rent their rooms, apartments or entire homes on a short-term basis to travelers, through one-on-one transactions. When an Airbnb host declined his request for a reservation, Gilkes was surprised.
"I had heard about #AirbnbWhileBlack," he says, mentioning a Twitter hashtag that circulated widely after African-American users complained publicly about racial discrimination by Airbnb hosts. "So I got one of my [white] friends to apply, and they were approved right away."
Airbnb transactions are confirmed using photographs and personal profiles to identify prospective renters and connect them with apartment hosts.
Gilkes was surprised and dismayed by his experience. What was more upsetting, however, was that when he contacted Airbnb about what he saw as discrimination, he said the firm offered little in the way of support. So he wrote down his story and put it online. It went viral.
"I woke up to 2,000 emails," he said, from other people who had experienced the same thing. "That's when I realized it was a systemic problem."
And no small one. Airbnb says it serves 60 million clients and has more than two million listings in 191 countries.
#AirbnbWhileBlack came to national attention several months ago when a lawsuit was filed by Gregory Selden, an African-American man in his 20s from Washington, D.C., who tried to book accommodation last year in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Selden was told by a property owner that the space he wanted to rent was unavailable, but when he altered his Airbnb profile using pictures of a white man's face, his rental was accepted for the same dates.
Like Gilkes, Selden complained to Airbnb and was dissatisfied with the result. He initiated a class-action lawsuit, citing complaints from other Airbnb users of color who had had difficulty finding a host who would accept them. Airbnb users must sign a class-action waiver in order to use the service, which could negate the legal action; the case is still pending.
Airbnb has been hit by discrimination complaints in the past. A working paper published by Harvard University this month found that not only was it harder for black people to find accommodation through Airbnb, but even black Airbnb hosts were more likely to refuse a black person than white hosts. The finding held true not only for people who were obviously black in their profile photographs, but also people with names that are more common to black people than whites.
"The difference persists whether the host is African-American or white, male or female. The difference also persists whether the host shares the property with the guest or not, and whether the property is cheap or expensive," according to the Harvard study, prepared by Benjamin Edelman, Michael Luca and Dan Svirsky.
The experts also noted that discrimination costs hosts money: they found that hosts who rejected black guests were only able to find replacement guests 35 percent of the time.
Enter Airbnb's new anti-discrimination policy, promised in June and delivered, as promised, in September. Critics say it doesn't go far enough.
Many people familiar with the AirbnbWhileBlack phenomenon say user profile pictures are a major source of the discrimination problem.
Airbnb has not promised to eliminate use of profile photos, as some of its critics have proposed, but instead says it will work on "reducing the prominence of guest photos in the booking process." The company said photographs are an important element in building trust between hosts and guests.
The home-sharing company also says it will encourage customers to use its "instant book" listings, an automatic service that makes reservations without prior host approval of specific guests, based on a pre-approved calendar. And it says it is improving the diversity of its own staff and putting better customer-service policies in place for discrimination complaints.
Airbnb's policy statement issued this month promises, "If a guest is not able to book a listing because they have been discriminated against, Airbnb will ensure the guest finds a place to stay." In addition, Airbnb says it recognizes the need to expand its host opportunities in communities of color.
But the new policy has its limits. "You can't pass a law or policy to change somebody's mind," says Reid Breitman of Kuzyk Law in Los Angeles. "You can't make somebody trust somebody."
Real estate analyst Emile L'Eplattenier of Fit Small Business in New York says Airbnb hosts have good reason to be choosy about their renters. "There have been many stories in the news of Airbnb guests trashing their hosts' apartments, having wild parties, or using them for drug-fueled trysts. Every single one of those guests technically was vetted by Airbnb. Why shouldn't hosts be able to use their own judgment when renting their homes to strangers from the internet?"
Meanwhile, Gilkes says, people of color remain underserved. He and a business partner, Zakkiyah Myers, are about four weeks away from opening their own business designed to provide a more welcoming experience to people of color. Their website, Innclusive, looks very similar to Airbnb's, but Gilkes says there are some important differences. For one, hosts and guests won't see pictures of each other until after the booking is made.
"If you show photographs before the person accepts the guests, you're introducing bias into the platform," Gilkes says. "People are making decisions based on how they look ... not whether they'd be good potential guests." Another thing they'll do, something Airbnb has picked up as well, is to close dates to subsequent requests if a host rejects a guest for a particular set of dates.
In addition, Gilkes says, Innclusive is working on a platform that will cooperate with Airbnb's booking system so hosts can list their properties on both sites without fear of double-booking.
Innclusive will also pick up one of Airbnb's strong trust-building features, reviews of both guests and hosts. Those reviews, and not racial profiling, Gilkes says, are the right place to go for information on whether guests and hosts have the same standards of behavior.