Ending #AirbnbWhileBlack

Airbnb brings out the best in people. As the UK closes its borders and the Republican nominee for US President chants “Build a Wall!”, Airbnb hosts are opening their homes and cities to people from all over the world.

But Airbnb also fosters discrimination. Check out the #AirbnbWhileBlack campaign on Twitter and you’ll find hundreds of stories of black guests being denied by hosts. Also, black hosts receive fewer requests; in other words, guest discriminate too. And while there is not much activity on the #AirbnbWhileMuslim campaign, it’s a problem, too.

As a white male Airbnb host, I wanted to make sure that I was not discriminating, consciously or unconsciously. To do this, I needed a system to divorce race and religion from my decision-making. So I came up with a standard by which all requesting guests must pass. The parameters for accepting a reservation are:

  • The guest must have at least 3 verifications (phone, email, offline ID, social media accounts, etc).
  • The guest must not have any negative reviews. We prefer at least 1 positive review but have accepted unreviewed guests if they meet our other criteria.
  • The guest must include a note. It doesn’t have to be long. A quick intro that includes basic travel plans is ideal. If the request comes without a note, I follow-up and say, “Thanks for your request. Do mind sharing a bit more about your trip? I want to make sure our home meets your needs.” Of course, the content of the note matters, but the content is almost always acceptable. We once rejected a request from someone who “had to get out of their parents’ house” and didn’t give a reasonable explanation. But notes like that are outliers.

It’s that simple. So if “Ashley from Concord, New Hampshire” whose profile picture is of her looking super cute at Fenway Park fails to meet the minimum standard, she is denied. On the flipside, a man that doesn’t look like me and doesn’t have a name that sounds like mine meets the minimum standard, I say “Welcome!”

I like this system because it levels the playing field for all inquiring guests. But there is a flaw. If other hosts discriminate, is it fair to use their reviews in my standard? In other words, it’s possible that white hosts have unfair expectations of black and Muslim guests and therefore review them worse, or not at all. Ideally, a standard should not depend on another (possibly discriminatory) person.

Compensate Non-discriminators, Tax Discriminators
If Airbnb is serious about combatting discrimination — which they are — I suggest a system that rewards non-discriminators and taxes discriminators.

Here’s how it would work. When a host signs-up they establish a standard. One host could chose 4 verifications and 10 reviews (high standard) while another host may be comfortable with 1 verification and 0 reviews (low standard). When a guest requests a booking they are scored against the hosts standard.

If the guest passes the host’s standard
If the guests passes the standard, the request is sent to the host. But instead of seeing the full profile, the host ONLY sees non-identifying information (booking details, guest reviews/verifications, guest message). The host does not see the person’s name, picture or citizenship. With this non-identifying information, the host can accept, deny or request to see the full profile. If the host accepts or denies based solely on non-identifying information, they are rewarded in the form of lower transaction fees and better search results. If the host requests to see the guest’s full profile and then accepts, they are neither penalized nor rewarded. And lastly, if the host asks to see a guest’s identifying information and then denies the booking, they are penalized with higher fees and worse search results. Why? Because by this point, the host was comfortable with everything (booking date, earnings, guest message) but they weren’t comfortable with the guest. Since they denied the guest, it can be assumed they did so based on an identifying factor.

If the guest fails the host’s standard
Hosts may want to see all requests, even from guests that don’t meet their predetermined standard. In these instances, the host sees all information immediately. If the host accepts a sub-standard guest, for lack of a better term, the host is rewarded. Now this is where it get’s interesting. If the host denies the guest, the guest is prompted with a one-question survey: “Do you believe the host denied you for any reason other than the date and nature of your request?” If the guest responds “No”, than the host is neither penalized nor rewarded. But if the guest responds “Yes”, then the basic facts of the case (guest profile, host profile, messages between the guest and the host, and booking details) are sent to a community of hosts and guests. If the community determines no discrimination, then host is neither penalized nor rewarded. If, however, the majority of guest and hosts find discriminatory practices, the host is penalized. While this sounds complicated, several companies (including Airbnb) are already tapping into their user-base with Directly.

Better than Instant Book
Today, Instant Book works similarly. If a guest meets a certain criteria, they can book instantly. But I do not use Instant Book for two reasons. First, you have to be maniacally diligent with your calendar. We got burnt early on with an Instant Book request. One Friday morning, my wife and I decided we wanted to leave town for the weekend. Before I could update the calendar, someone booked. Since we don’t like guest arriving when we are not home, I had to cancel the reservation, which resulted in a penalty. Second, I need the freedom to deny a person based on factors such as their agenda for the trip, the size of their party, or whether they have a dog. For instance, if a guest is requesting one night to host a dinner party for 10 people, I’m denying! That is way too much work and stress for one night. With Instant Book, you don’t have the freedom to deny based on the guests note.

Face tattoos and Confederate Flags
This system is not perfect, unfortunately. Admittedly, I judge guests based on their photos. Call me old fashioned, but I’m weary of people with face tattoos. I’m also hesitant to welcome someone into my neighborhood and home if they are wearing an offensive shirt in their profile picture; for example, the Confederate Flag or a US President with a Hitler mustache. In the end, this is a form of discrimination and the goal is reduce discrimination on the Airbnb platform, so I’m happy to give up these identifying factors for the greater good of the system

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