May 1, 2017
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California Wants to Know How Many Airbnb Hosts Racially Discriminate Against Guests

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A California agency will investigate hosts with three or more complaints against them alleging racial discrimination.

After facing a slew of criticism for allowing Airbnb hosts to racially discriminate against certain guests, the short-term rental giant agreed to let California carry out “fair-housing testing” to determine whether certain hosts did indeed bar guests from their homes because of the color of their skin. Progress? Well, only sort of, some say.

Murray Cox, the creator of Inside Airbnb—an advocacy group that sheds light on the ways in which Airbnb has exacerbated gentrification in New York City—told Motherboard the California development is “further evidence that Airbnb and their hosts should be subject to housing regulations designed to protect us all.”

Airbnb’s status as a sharing economy platform allows the company to skirt both housing laws and regulations on hotels. In New York, subletting rooms via Airbnb often falls foul of tenancy agreements.

Inside Airbnb’s research shows that Airbnb’s incursions into black neighborhoods have displaced black residents unable to keep up with rising rents while disproportionately benefiting white hosts, who’ve earned an estimated $159.7 million compared to $48.3 million for black hosts.

“My research contradicts Airbnb’s exploitative marketing campaigns which suggest that Airbnb is a path out of poverty in low-income neighborhoods and benefits black neighborhoods,” Cox said.

David Wachsmuth, an urban planning professor at McGill University who coauthored a paper on the connection between short-term rentals and gentrification, is a bit more optimistic: he told Motherboard he sees the fair housing tests as a “very good step”— but only if “regulations are pursued strongly and effectively.”

“The sharing economy has just as much discrimination as the normal economy,” he added. “Airbnb and Uber and other sharing platforms need to be held to the exact same standards as hotels and taxi companies.”

The wildly successful startup—approximately 150 million travelers have stayed in 3 million listings since the company’s launch in 2008—drew criticism last summer when news of rampant racial discrimination surfaced, as evidenced by the hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack and a widely circulated Harvard study indicating that guests with African American-sounding names were 16 percent less likely to be accepted than guests with white-sounding names.

Airbnb’s compliance with California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) is its latest step to redeem its image.

Airbnb spokesperson Nick Papas directed me to the company’s blog and explained that, “the agreement allows for the state to conduct testing of California hosts who have three or more listings and have been the subject of a discrimination complaint.” The DEFH didn’t respond in time for publication.

Benjamin Edelman, one of the authors of the Harvard study that got the ball rolling for Airbnb to redress its discrimination issues, told Motherboard he just thought it was weird California needed Airbnb’s permission to run tests in the first place.

“A policeman doesn’t need my approval to point a radar machine at my car, measure my speed, and give me a ticket if I’m going too fast,” he said. “I certainly can’t negotiate with the policeman: ‘You can measure my speed, but only if you promise not to give me a ticket.’ Yet that’s basically what Airbnb has demanded of California. To my eye, it’s completely out of line.”

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