Airbnb’s futile patch for a problem of social inequality

  • Good intentions but wrong remedy for a problem of society in general;
  • Is the whole world paying the cost of America’s failing society?

This chilly Saturday evening in London I received an email from Airbnb with the subject line “Discrimination and Belonging: What it Means for You”, informing me as a host of “The Airbnb Community Commitment”.

It says ”You commit to treat everyone — regardless of race, religion, national origin, ethnicity, disability, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or age — with respect, and without judgement or bias.” It goes on to say, or threaten essentially, that as a host I have to agree to it on or after 1 November 2016, otherwise I will be banned as an Airbnb host and user (ie even when travelling).

I will definitely be agreeing to it, as I make a living from letting my former home on Airbnb. My 3-bedroom, 2-bathroom flat in London isn’t quite the thing for a single, backpacking globetrotter, but it’s ideal for large groups of visitors looking for affordable accommodation with comfort and style in the most expensive city in the world. And the Airbnb platform proves awesome.

It’s fair enough for Airbnb to want to cover its back (or ass, or both) with this kind of announcement — it means that those people who make a big noise about being discriminated against (sometimes with good reason) can quiet down, or direct their complaints elsewhere, well away from this company.

But I know that, even though I’m an egalitarian who shares Airbnb’s philosophy, my neighbours will have more practical concerns and will prefer me not to suspend my judgement. My property has an average guest group size of 5–6 people. So if it goes wrong, it can go wrong on a big scale. And I’m not just speaking theoretically — we’ve already had some really bad situations where the police had to be called.

The worst situation was a group of five young black males and a female in their early 20s who hired the flat back in the summer. They enjoyed their stay so much and partied so loudly right into the morning (my house rules state “NO PARTIES, NO NOISE, at any time”) that the neighbour living next door, a single mum with an 8-year-old daughter, rang me in distress at 1:30 in the morning. You can imagine what a nice call that was.

I think I was more distressed than she was — there I was, sipping a cocktail in a relaxing spa resort away from the hubbub of London, and there she was, along with her sleep-deprived child, having to deal with the aftermath of my “non-judgmental, non-biased” decision to accept a booking from this group of people, who were arguably in a high-risk category for things going wrong. And it did go very wrong.

So I rang the lead guest who booked the flat and asked for them all to leave immediately. I was literally crying and begging her to leave. She said OK. Then at 2am I rang my assistant in tears, stressing her out in addition to my neighbour, her daughter and myself. My assistant, who lives nearby, went over to do a check at 8:30am and found that the young men and woman were still there. She politely asked them to leave. They were gone by 11am.

In the meantime, I had cancelled my weekend getaway halfway through, and needless to say all the spa massage benefits to the skin were entirely cancelled out by the stress. When my assistant and I went to the flat a few hours later, we found the place was in a complete mess. Worse still, my Mulberry tote bag, Jimmy Choo sandals and Maxmara high heels had departed with the guests, and wardrobes and drawers had been rummaged through and left wide open.

Dear reader, you might be raising an eyebrow or two at my mention of those flashy luxury items and brand names, but they were a legacy and ironic reminder of my former life in high-flying investment banking. I didn’t know what to do with them after I quit banking, so I guess it was something of a blessing in disguise that they were removed under these circumstances AND I swiftly received compensation from Airbnb’s host protection scheme. Fair enough.

Oh, and finally, did I mention a 2-month old 55-inch curved LED smart TV which disappeared from the living room at the same time? I had bought this specially for the flat when I started letting it through Airbnb. Obviously the police had to be brought into the equation, and the person who made the booking was arrested.

Ever since that incident, I have never felt completely at ease when I meet my neighbour, who has also been a good friend — the feeling of guilt is always there. Two months prior to this incident, another group, all young males, had played loud music in the flat in the daytime. My neighbour wasn’t impressed.

She’s had to put up with groups of strangers coming and going. She’s on her own with a young daughter. To a certain extent, she could be categorised as vulnerable. And I feel it’s my responsibility to do my bit to make things as pleasant as possible for her.

And, on the whole, it’s been very positive. The family groups who’ve stayed at the property have been lovely people — kind, quiet, considerate, and often with a great sense of humour. They’ve been widely varied in terms of race, nationality, religion and age — Chinese, Indian, European, American, African, Malaysian, Australian. Probably the charge I set for the place means that guests tend to be broadly middle-class and professional.

The only exceptions to this have been a couple of families from rural areas of their respective countries. They were friendly, but they left the place very untidy. Coming from China myself, I can appreciate that, in countries undergoing urbanisation, rural-based citizens need to catch up a little with more sophisticated city living.

Through our experiences of the hosting process my assistant and I have developed a special radar for what kind of client we’re dealing with. Now I can sense danger a mile away, just by reading the first sentence of a guest’s booking enquiry. With the next step of looking at their profile picture and reading their self-description, I know whether I’m ready to euphorically accept the booking or run like lightning for the hills.

And now Airbnb tells me “to treat everyone … with respect, and without judgement or bias”? Well, I have no problem in being respectful. But how about my judgement as to their suitability? And how about the safety of my property, my neighbour, my community and myself?

When I receive a booking request from a certain type of group, do I say “my darlings, I adore you, but seriously you could make trouble when you get high and I’m so scared of you losing control of yourselves and my neighbour complaining, that I cannot accept your booking” — and risk being banned from Airbnb for being “judgemental” and “biased”?

Or do I tell a polite, white lie: “My dear, thanks so much for your interest but the days are not available” — and then have Airbnb asking me to “block the days that are not available from your calendar”?

Or do I accept the booking and pray to God that everything will be fine?

Or do I resign myself to being an easy prey to crooks, thanks to my reduced ability to screen guests? Oh, and didn’t Airbnb mention that it’s serious about host safety? How do they balance these two conflicting issues?

Deeper than all of this is the homogeneity in the lifestyles, behaviour and values of people who share similar social positions, or “class”. And the ocean-wide difference in these aspects between people of different classes. Class operates over and above race, nationality, religion, gender, age etc in this respect. For example, I’ve had more enjoyable conversations with an Indian family group in which the younger couple were bankers from Mumbai and the two sets of parents from a respectable upper-middle class background, than I’ve had with UKIP-supporting English farmers living less than 20 miles from me.

A big part of this difference between classes can be traced back to inequality. Inequality, together with the widening income gap, is the single most important driver of the current worldwide discontent toward and distrust of the political establishment.

And there are the ethnic groups which have been badly disadvantaged in the past and are the most vulnerable to inequality, due to the fact that they’re not starting off on a level playing field. How can ethnic minorities operate on an equal footing with the rest of western society if, in the USA for example, as recently as the 1960s, black people were segregated in terms of education, housing, employment and public places, and excluded from the democratic process?

I’m not sure how well these historically disadvantaged ethnic groups are faring in other western countries compared to the States, but I’m not overly optimistic. We need a collective human awakening for a new kind of society to emerge.

So here we have it. Airbnb, an American company, is requiring hosts worldwide to abide by the 1968 US law of non-discrimination in housing. If my instinct is correct.

Let’s say my mum in China follows my example and puts a house up for rent on Airbnb. I’m just imagining her receiving the email about anti-discrimination and being utterly bewildered by it — the concept of discrimination (especially racial) is largely non-existent in the Chinese social context. I’m wondering how I’d explain to her about the rationale and why it should come to her from a country on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. A daunting and probably impossible task. I guess I would just tell her to accept it and not worry about it.

I haven’t read the law, nor do I have any intention to. I guess I’d have to hire a lawyer to understand it properly anyway. But I don’t have the money and I don’t have the time. I’m a young, Chinese, single woman trotting the globe while receiving income from a very nice and stylish London flat, living a life not overly complicated.

And I happen to have an exciting side-job as an Energy Healer. It wasn’t anything perplexing or esoteric for me to see and understand the collective trauma and emotional baggage carried by humankind as a whole, from the terrible abuse, exploitation, segregation, violence, killing, among and of ourselves, particularly towards certain ethnic groups in human history.

While the only remedy is forgiveness, letting go of the collective egos (be it ego of superiority or of victimhood), and true compassion for everyone, someone out there (they must be very powerful) entertained the fantasy that by passing a law banning discrimination, the social wounds would be healed without a scar and different groups could live happily and harmoniously together forever.

I dream and wish the same.

But perhaps I’m giving too much credit to the lawmakers, enforcers and corporate users — I’m not even sure if they’re coming from an intention to heal the social wounds and bring equality to society, or whether they just took a sticking plaster to try and hold the political crumble together.

So, returning to my daily concerns — I have to make a living and keep my neighbour happy. Did I tell you that I’ve been classed as a Superhost for four quarters in a row, and Airbnb sent me a $100 travelling credit as a reward a few weeks ago? So while I have to agree to Airbnb’s anti-discrimination policy as soon as I receive it, I think I’m in a better position than Airbnb’s policy enforcement unit in assessing the suitability of the potential guests to my flat. Does that mean I’m being judgemental? (I have to silently nod my head.) In that case — Banned!