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Liberty & Airbnb

There is racial bias in the popular private rental service. Should we tolerate it for the sake of property rights?

NPR had a report yesterday on racial bias in Airbnb rentals, and it turned out to be more interesting than I expected. Here’s the intro; I will excerpt the transcript below:

The sharing economy has made many things that used to be strictly business far more personal. Platforms for hailing a taxi or renting a vacation home often display the names and photos of the strangers involved in the transaction. The idea is to personalize the exchange, but it can have unintended consequences.

Airbnb is the popular service through which private home owners make their properties, or rooms in their houses, available to renters. Turns out that if you’re black, you have a significantly lower chance of being able to rent a property. A Harvard Business School professor who ran a study testing racial bias in Airbnb rentals told NPR:

We could see that there was a very different response rate and acceptance rate for African-American guests relative to white guests. Having an African-American name leads to roughly a 15 percent lower chance of being accepted as a guest on Airbnb relative to having a distinctively white name, holding all else constant.

David King, the recently hired Airbnb diversity director (and a black man), acknowledges that racial bias is a problem, but doesn’t think that taking photos off of Airbnb profiles is a solution. He said:

The photos are on the platform for a reason. Number one, it really does does help to aid in the trust between the guest and the host. And then secondary to that is safety. You want to make sure that that guest that shows up at your door is the person that you’ve been communicating with.

Makes sense, right? Would you want to give up that protection if you were a homeowner?

It gets more complex when reporters talk to Synta Keeling, a black woman who rents rooms in her Anacostia townhouse to travelers via Airbnb:

KEELING: The strange thing about Airbnb – makes it tough, is, I really don’t want a racist guest in my house (laughter) because I don’t – I live here in this space, so I don’t need to feel uncomfortable.

Well … yeah. Can you blame her? I wouldn’t want anyone in my home whose views made me seriously uncomfortable. And I would not want to stay in the home of a stranger who was made uncomfortable by my views, or anything else about me. Are you a Social Justice Warrior with a room to rent? You should have the right to refuse to accommodate in your own home a notorious anti-SJW troll like me. I’m serious about that. And if my religion or politics, which are publicly known, make you uncomfortable having me as a guest, then you should have the right to say no. Believe me, I would not want to walk into a situation in which I was not wanted, however offended your prejudice would leave me.

The NPR reporters say that Airbnb is in an unusual place, legally. A hotel would be penalized for discrimination — but probably not an Airbnb property owner who rented their place via the service. But it’s not certain.

So, what’s the difference between refusing to rent a room in your own B&B to a traveler because of his race, sexuality, etc. — which is illegal — and refusing to do so via Airbnb’s platform? I can’t see any moral difference, but I hope for the sake of Airbnb owners that it never gets challenged in court, or if it does, the courts take the side of giving owners discretion. Yes, that means that there will necessarily be some objectionable discrimination, and that’s regrettable. But on balance, I think it’s worth it. If I could not have some measure of confidence in the person to whom I was renting my own property — especially if, like Synta Keeling, I actually shared the property with my guests — then I would not participate on Airbnb.

Is this not a problem that could be solved, or at least ameliorated, with comments on the host’s Airbnb profile? If a host mistreated or discriminated against someone in renting, that should be part of the profile (though Airbnb should have a way to vet those complaints and only post those that seem legitimate). Then again, that doesn’t speak to the legal issue. No one would put up with the local Marriott refusing to rent a room to black customers. But I would tolerate, say, a gay Airbnb host refusing to allow non-gay renters. I would also tolerate a gay B&B host doing the same. It may not be logical, but I would rather let small business owners — including Airbnb hosts — have that degree of freedom — even if it made it harder for me, personally, to rent a place. Again, I would not want to rent from a host who didn’t want people like me in their home or rental property.

But I wouldn’t support that as a general principle for the owner of a hotel or apartment complex. Is there any legitimate way for anti-discrimination law to give more leeway to Airbnb hosts? If I wanted to rent my guest apartment only to travelers over the age of 60, or only to Orthodox Christians, or only to professional writers and artists … why not? Why is the principle of non-discrimination more important than the freedom of the property owner? Why should Synta Keeling not have the right to refuse to rent a room in her house to a white supremacist who is trying to make a point?

That said, I can’t come up with a logically sound reason why an Airbnb host or the owner of a B&B should have that right, and the owner of the Marriott should not. What do you think?



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