Airbnb Announces New Policies To Combat Racial Discrimination

By Kevin Hoffman

As Airbnb re-shapes the hospitality industry in cities across the country, concerns have been raised over discriminatory practices among its home-sharing hosts.

Allison Schraub, Chicago program director for Airbnb, was asked about that issue during a panel discussion hosted by Reboot Illinois in August at the tech incubator 1871.

"I had a feeling someone was going to ask that," Schraub replied. "I will tell you that at Airbnb this our absolute highest priority."

Schraub said Airbnb had recruited former Attorney General Eric Holder and Laura Murphy, former director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington legislative office, to help identify ways to address racial discrimination after complaints came to a head on social media earlier this year and spurred the hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack.

In a 32-page report published Thursday, the San Francisco-based startup outlined a number of new anti-discrimination policies, including a "community commitment" Airbnb hosts will have to agree to beginning Nov. 1. The commitment asks hosts to work with users "regardless of race, religion, national origin, disability, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or age, with respect, and without judgment or bias."

The company also plans to reduce the prominence of user photos and automatically block out a host's reservation calendar for days they have told potential renters are not available. Both policies are aimed at tackling problems experienced by people of color, particularly African-Americans.

Additionally, Airbnb said it will ramp up the use of "Instant Book" listings, a feature that allows would-be guests to make reservations without a host's approval.

Murphy, who authored the report, wrote that it was clear Airbnb "needed a comprehensive, end-to-end review," noting there have been too many instances of people being discriminated against "because of who they are or what they look like."

"These changes are merely a first step. Airbnb understands that no one company can eliminate racism and discrimination," she added. "Fighting bias is an ongoing task that requires constant vigilance from all of us. And there is no question that we will continue to see examples of bias and discrimination in society, the sharing economy, and Airbnb in the future."

A report published by several Harvard University researchers in December found "widespread discrimination" by hosts against people with names that sounded African-American. Booking requests from guests with distinct African-American names, such as Tanisha and Tyrone, were about 16 percent less likely to be accepted than identical guests with distinctively White names like Kristen and Todd, according to the report.

In May, a class-action discrimination lawsuit was filed against Airbnb by a black man who claimed he was denied a reservation because of his race.

Airbnb's Chicago office declined to comment on the report.