Addressing Bias and Discrimination in the Vacation Rental Industry

    I recently read a blog by Fischer Phillips, a law firm, entitled “How The Sharing Economy Can Tackle Discrimination Claims,” which deals with the issue of how companies working in the sharing economy need to acknowledge and deal with discrimination claims. The author states:
    recent National Bureau of Economic Research study, looking at 1,500 rides on different ride-hailing services, found that passengers who used “African-American-sounding” names in cities like Seattle waited 35 percent longer for rides. In some cities, they were up to three times as likely to have their rides cancelled as white riders. The study found that African-Americans weren’t the only ones paying a high price for their chromosomes. In Boston, particularly, study evidence — which utilized controlled routes, controlled passengers and recorded key performance metrics — showed that drivers often took female passengers for longer, more expensive rides.
    In the context of vacation rentals, it is obvious that this type of discrimination may be practiced so discreetly that it is hard to detect. When a host receives a booking request, most platforms follow the practice of giving the guests’ name and photo. There are a myriad of reasons why a reservation can be denied, and most hosts will not admit openly — or may not even be conscious of the fact — that the real reason for the denial is the ethnicity of the guest. 

    This raises the question: Is it necessary to include the guest’s name and photo at the time of booking? As the aforementioned post points out:
    Because many sharing economy apps provide pictures of customers and employees, as well as names that could be interpreted as more Anglo- or African-American, consider whether the inclusion of such photographs is necessary to the operation of the business. It could allow customers to inappropriately “screen” employees based on protected categories. For instance, Innclusive, a peer-to-peer accommodation platform developed as an alternative to Airbnb, does not show a profile picture or personal information until hosts agree to a booking.
    As a homeowner who rents out my property, I admit that this is a tough call. If I am allowing a group of people to use my house, I want to know something about them. I like seeing a photo and reading reviews from other owners. If a host is not given the guests name or photo, how would reviews work? How would you review someone without referring to them by their name?

    As a white male growing up in America, I admit that I’ve never worried about being denied accommodations because of my ethnicity. However, it is easy to understand how this issue raises its head everyday all over the world in the vacation rental industry. I applaud Airbnb for openly addressing the issue and admitting that they have been remiss in dealing with such issues. In a 32-page report, Airbnb said they are developing new tools to route discrimination concerns to a group of trained specialists who will handle the complaints. The company also plans to begin training to address unconscious biases, and is pushing for more diversity within its own work force. The company also told its rental hosts that they needed to agree to a “community commitment” starting on Nov. 1, and that they must hew to a new nondiscrimination policy.  

    There are no easy answers. As Laura W. Murphy, a former director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington legislative office who was hired by Airbnb to compile its report, stated:
    “There is no one product change, policy or modification that can eliminate bias and discrimination,” she wrote. “Tackling these challenges requires a sustained and multifaceted approach.”
    As citizens, we need to root out bias and discrimination wherever we see it. As vacation rental hosts, we can commit to being part of the solution, not part of the problem. As with any issue of social concern, the more dialogue we have about it, the more solutions come into the light. If you have any creative ideas to address these issues, I’d like to hear from you.
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