This week the short-term lodging rental site Airbnb.com challenged a Harvard University study’s findings that African-Americans who used the the website to rent their homes made less money than their white counterparts. The study took two rental spaces of similar quality in the same vicinity and found Airbnb listings owned by a non-black host went for 12 percent more on average.
The study’s findings are not new and certainly not specific to property owners or renters on Airbnb. Black renters and homeowners have been denied properties, charged higher rents or interests for loans and systematically kept out of certain neighborhoods for decades.
But because now there’s proof of race-based discrimination housing on a new platform, the story is getting a lot of attention. Dozens of news sites including Gawker and L.A. Times ran with the story of racial discrimination on Airbnb after Recode.net published their story titled “Airbnb Design May Lead Black Hosts to Charge Less, Say Researchers.”
But black users on Airbnb didn’t need Harvard to tell them discrimination exists on the site that facilitated more than 6 million guest stays in 2013. Last year Los Angeles resident and YouTube personality Tommy Sotomayor took to YouTube claiming he was rejected from a rental unit because of the color of his skin.
“I got declined twice by the same persons and if you look at their history they only rent to white people,” explained Sotomayor in a video uploaded to YouTube in October 2013. Sotomayor claims he paid for his rental and was rejected by the host after they found out he’s black.
“All they knew is I was black," Sotomayor went on to say, noting that the host advertising the apartment was still listing the space as vacant on the dates he requested.
Housing discrimination isn’t a new phenomenon. A more subtle form of racism has troubled housing markets long before Airbnb—from the 1920s to 1940s, racial housing covenants prevented certain groups from buying homes in some neighborhoods.
And discrimination in the housing market still persists. A report released last year by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found that in major cities across the country, blacks, Latinos and Asians still face greater struggles to find a place to live than similarly qualified whites. Real estate agents informed black renters of 11 percent fewer listings than their white counterparts, according to HUD.
While showing black renters less housing options isn’t overt, academics call this form of racism implicit bias.
“If you ask those consumers would you rather rent from a white person or a black person, they say it doesn't matter because they’re not conscious that they have those preferences,” explained Rinku Sen, President of Race Forward and the publisher of Colorlines.com, a daily news site that explores race and politics.
Airbnb disputes the study’s claims, arguing the two-year-old data is outdated and represents just one of the thousands of cities they serve.
“We are committed to making Airbnb the most open, trusted, diverse, transparent community in the world and our Terms of Service prohibit content that discriminates,” Airbnb said in a statement. “The authors made a number of subjective or inaccurate determinations when compiling their findings.”
Whether the Harvard study’s findings are accurate one thing still holds true: the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity is still in business. Today, close to 30% of the more than 4 million fair housing complaints the federal department receives are based on race discrimination.
Odds are that racial bias, whether implicit or not, has permeated the more than 300,000 listings on Airbnb.