Easier to find a hot tub than a step-free entrance on Airbnb

Only a tiny proportion of Airbnb listings in popular tourist destinations are clearly labelled with accessibility features.

Four years after Airbnb introduced more than 20 different filters to help travelers with disabilities find accessible accommodation, suitable properties remain almost impossible to find.

A hot-tub with a view across a green valley, from the side of hotel Archontiko at Metsovo village, Greece.
Photo by Dimitris Kiriakakis

Using a list of the top-100 most visited cities around the world, we searched Airbnb for properties with no stairs leading to the main guest entrance. Our search was not fussy; we looked for a weekend away anytime over a month. We found that the number of accessible properties is tiny; an average of only 10 properties in each city.

Stays with no steps to guest entrance per city: buenos aires, 55; rome, 44; mexico city, 36; paris, 32; sao paulo, 30; nice, 26; bangkok, 24; london, 23; jakarta, 22; rio de janeiro, 21; lagos, 20; florence, 20; los angeles, 20; saint petersburg, 18; bogota, 17; houston, 17; lima, 17; new york city, 16; berlin, 16; las vegas, 15

With 55 potential stays (of a total of approximately 9,560, according to airdna) at the time we searched, Buenos Aires had the highest number of available properties with a step-free entrance.

To put that number into perspective, there are about 18 times more Airbnb properties in Buenos Aires with a hot tub than a step-free guest entrance.

Many accessibility features are only useful when combined. For example, guests with a wheelchair may need not just a step-free entrance, but assurance that the entrance is also wide enough to get through. But searching for multiple accessibility features on Airbnb is frustratingly fruitless. Almost no properties in any of the top-100 cities are listed with both a step-free entrance and a front door wider than 81cm or 34" (the minimum unobstructed width for doorways to fit wheelchairs in many parts of the world).

Cities with no steps AND a wide entrance: nice, 2; houston, 2; johannesburg, 1; florence, 1; sao paulo, 1; los angeles, 1; saint petersburg, 1; barcelona, 1; bangkok, 1; rome, 1; kolkata, 1; qingdao, 1; porto, 1; mumbai, 0; moscow, 0; montreal, 0; montevideo, 0; mecca, 0; mexico city, 0; medina, 0
Almost no properties in any of the top-100 cities are listed with both a step-free entrance and a wide front door

We also searched for properties with grab rails in the shower — a relatively low-cost feature that is usually easy for homeowners to add. Those listings were even rarer than properties without steps to the guest entrance.

Properties with grab rails in the shower: buenos aires, 26; rio de janeiro, 24; saint petersburg, 23; new york city, 21; tokyo, 21; sao paulo, 19; chiba, 19; las vegas, 18; lima, 17; los angeles, 16; bangkok, 15; osaka, 15; mexico city, 15; san francisco, 14; san jose, 13; paris, 12; cancun, 12; chicago, 12; houston, 12; rome, 11

Airbnb has long allowed prospective guests to filter for wheelchair accessibility, and introduced its new and more detailed accessibility features in 2018. However, even after a tweak to simplify these last year, uptake seems extraordinarily low. Airbnb now verifies accessibility claims: hosts must upload photos that clearly show the accessible features they are claiming. These images are then manually reviewed by Airbnb, and made available to prospective guests on the listing. The whole process is completely optional, and hosts are not really incentivised to accurately describe the accessibility of their properties, let alone to modify their homes to improve accessibility.

Airbnb’s controversial history of enabling discrimination

Like other peer economy platforms, Airbnb has faced criticism for discrimination in the past, and many of those concerns have been backed up by research. One early study, looking at listings in Northern California in 2015, found that ‘on average Asian hosts earn $90 less per week or 20% less than White hosts for similar rentals’. In 2016, thousands of people spoke out on social media using the hashtag #airbnbwhileblack and the discrimination they had faced on the site. Soon afterwards, Airbnb released a report detailing its efforts to tackle discrimination, including changes to its policies, introducing a dedicated anti-discrimination team and requiring hosts to make a pledge:

‘to treat all fellow members of this community, regardless of race, religion, national origin, disability, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or age, with respect, and without judgment or bias’.

In research conducted in 2015, researchers created two sets of fictional guest profiles — identical except that one set had ‘distinctly white’ names and the other had ‘distinctively African American’ names — and sent enquiries to 6,400 properties on Airbnb. The responses they received showed that ‘Inquiries from guests with distinctively African American sounding names were 16% less likely to get a yes from the hosts than those with white-sounding names.’ In 2019, Wired UK reported that unequal treatment of guests with disability was still rife on the platform. And a Rutgers University report published in 2020 found prospective guests with disability were more likely to be rejected by an Airbnb hosts than guests without disability, even as Airbnb announced it had bought accessible accommodation site Accomable and would absorb its listings. Airbnb has been partnering with important advocacy organisations like National Council on Independent Living for years, but it seems to have made little real improvement to address the varying needs of travelers.

Is there a role for regulation?

In many parts of the world, disability laws require hotels to invest in accessibility features, including ramps, lifts, and grab rails. But Airbnb itself isn’t likely to be liable under anti-discrimination laws for the conduct of its hosts, and most hosts will not be bound by anti-discrimination laws or hotel industry regulations themselves. Airbnb hosts might agree to terms and conditions that prohibit active discrimination against guests, but under current discrimination laws, they usually cannot be required to add costly features to their personal homes or even take the time to document existing features in their listings.

In policy terms, then, who should bear the cost of improving accessibility? The regulations that apply to hotels are hard to directly transfer to the peer economy; placing additional burdens on individual hosts will eventually make real grassroots sharing prohibitive for many hosts. Obligations that are too expensive are likely to drive ordinary homeowners away from Airbnb, leaving larger commercial operators to fill the space.

There may be more creative solutions, but they need Airbnb’s cooperation. Airbnb is the only actor with the potential to really understand the total number of accessible properties on its network, how many more might be required to satisfy demand, and what works to encourage hosts to participate in building a more accessible platform. So far, Airbnb have been content to talk about accessibility, but the platform has not committed to real change that would improve the experience for travelers.

The next steps are to find out what works — how could Airbnb encourage hosts to identify accessible features in their listings? What financial or social incentives might Airbnb introduce to motivate hosts to invest in making their homes more accessible? Could it subsidise new accessibility features or tweak its search algorithms to reward homeowners who make the investment themselves? Questions like these have to be answered if we want to encourage a fair and flourishing peer economy.

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Written by Nicolas Suzor, Suzy Wood, and Laura Vodden. This research is part of an ongoing project exploring inequality on digital platforms. It is funded by an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship (FT210100263) and integrated within the ARC Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making + Society.

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Nicolas Suzor

Nicolas Suzor

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I study the governance of the internet. Law Professor @QUTLaw and @QUTDMRC; Member of @OversightBoard. All views are my own. Author: Lawless (July 2019).