Airbnb’s racism problem is much bigger than a few racist hosts.
But it took a weekend in Oakland to show me that.
You may have heard recently that there’s a problem with racism on Airbnb. Screenshots of racist epithets, and other experiences collected under#AirbnbWhileBlack, have revealed a few of the platform’s hosts to be angry bigots. Beyond that, there is strong evidence that black guests are being rejected, because they are black, even by outwardly well-mannered hosts. A Harvard study from January of this year found that guests with black-sounding names got rejected from many listings where people with identical profiles, but a white-sounding name, got accepted.
The company appears determined to really do something about this. Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky wrote recently that Airbnb “will not simply ‘address the issue’ by doing the least required for liability and PR purposes. I want us to be smart and innovative and to create new tools to prevent discrimination and bias that can be shared across the industry.” There are concrete signs of progress: High powered experts (including a longtime ACLU executive, and former Attorney General Eric Holder), retained by the company, have been meeting with a broad spectrum of civil rights and activist groups.
I work at Upturn, where we’ve been thinking a lot about how data science can be used to fight discrimination. Honestly, I found the end of Chesky’s post —where he calls for building new tools to fight discrimination across the sharing economy—thrilling.
But this past weekend gave me a totally different perspective.
I had a meeting out in the Bay Area, and whenever I’m there, I like to linger and savor the place. This time, friends were out of town, so I needed to book my own lodging.
I knew what many visitors to the Bay Area know: People have been turning long-term housing into illegal short-term Airbnb hotels, while Bay Area rents escalate past any sense of sanity or alignment with peoples’ lives, and families are struggling to keep their homes. (Airbnb isn’t the only reason for the local housing crisis, but it is a reason.) Nonetheless, I wanted a bargain and a real neighborhood experience, rather than a sterile and pricey last-minute hotel.
I tried to have it both ways: I would use Airbnb, I told myself, but not by booking one of those illegal apartments-turned-hotels that displaces residents. Instead, I’d book the kind of experience that the company’s story is built on. I would stay in someone’s spare room, occupying space that doesn’t compete with residential housing stock.
In hindsight, this was a self-serving justification.
I decide to stay in Oakland, a place that’s new to me, partly because it’s at the front lines of a national debate on policing, race, and economic justice, a conversation central to my work.
I’ve even written before about the unfortunate way that Airbnb encourages everyone to break rules—but in the moment, as I’m making my booking, I haven’t converted that concern into a clear rule for my personal travel. (I draw a bit of comfort from remembering, hazily, that there have been some new ordinances designed to regulate Airbnb in the Bay Area. Perhaps they are working, I think, and my stay will happen in a way that’s consistent with the values of the place.)
I find a well-rated room in the Uptown neighborhood, an area with a mix of hipster bars, fancy restaurants, and more industrial warehouse type buildings that date from an earlier era.
On Friday evening, emerging from the 19th Street BART station, the gentrification, and the racial and political ferment, are both on display from the first. I pass a bar that has signs up in its windows—big long handmade signs on rolled out butcher paper—with the names of Alton Sterling, Freddie Gray and Philando Castile, and with other messages about police and what’s happening. A few doors down, a restaurant offers rabbit and lobster sausage, favorably noted by a Michelin critic.
My Airbnb host had used a photo of a cat as his profile picture, and I’d read that some black hosts in particular find that they get more bookings when prospective guests don’t realize they are black. So I wonder, as I walk to meet him, whether he might fit that story, or instead just be someone who happens to like cats.
Upon arrival, my host, who does turn out to be black, meets me outside and we enter the building together. Through a side door. He says that’s the best way to come and go. (If you’re already wondering why a host wouldn’t be inside his own apartment, you’re on to something.) The building is part of a huge, beautiful, eeerily quiet new midrise development, with jazz softly piping into the hallways via tastefully recessed speakers. There are no keys for this building or its apartments, just electronic fobs. It’s that kind of place.
While we’re in the elevator, he turns to me and says, enthusiastically, “I do community organizing for Airbnb.” And that’s when I realize two things: First, Airbnb and its hosts have apparently co-opted the vague but virtuous-sounding term “community organizer” into a label for some function of a profit-maximizing company (yup: here’s more). And second, I’ve somehow blundered into the exact world of housing-disrupting superhosts that I’d wanted to avoid, and probably won’t be crashing in the spare room of anyone’s real apartment after all.
As we enter the apartment, my host says “Welcome to your home away from home” (not, I note to myself, “welcome to my home”). It’s a two bed, two bath, with a pair of enclosed suites separated by a central living space. Walking over to one side of the apartment, he says, “this whole side of the apartment, including this washing machine”—opening a closet to reveal a washing machine—“is yours.” I did rent a room, but it turns out the apartment’s other occupants are, like me, paying Airbnb guests, not real Oakland residents. The apartment has a certain sterile, generic quality to it. The furniture is all from IKEA, all the same age, like those rows of generic postwar London office buildings that tell you a whole block was bombed out during the Blitz. No one, I realize, actually lives here. It certainly does seem to be the ideal layout for tandem Airbnb rentals.
My host explains the wifi and tells me about Cafe Van Kleef, a neighborhood bar famous for making a grapefruit cocktail called the greyhound. (I later learn that Jerry Brown, who was a regular there during his time as Oakland’s mayor, was a driving force behind the construction of these apartments.) “You’ll go in there, and 90% of the people will be having a greyhound,” my host remarks. “I may go get one myself.”
Something about the way he says that last part, about the inflection on the word myself, hits me pretty hard. I shouldn’t be surprised, I guess, by any of this, but I realize suddenly that I am hearing a schpiel. He has said this many, many times. In a moment he finishes the introduction, wishes me well, and heads out.
And I’m left sitting in an extremely spacious, extremely reasonably priced, apartment that nobody really lives in, thinking, fuck. I literally sit down and stare for a moment.
I say out loud, to no one in particular, “I am hurting people.”
Because the truth is, this apartment is driving up the cost of housing for people who live in Oakland. Many of whom, unlike me, can’t afford to pay more than they do for their housing.
My money is competing with their money for housing stock. Housing that they need and I do not. And I’m winning. And they are losing.
Somewhere, at the margin, someone who loves Oakland can’t afford their newly heightened rent, or someone can’t move in to the city, or… somehow, I’m consuming this scarce resource and someone else now can’t.
I log back on to Airbnb and discover that my host has six listings, not just one. I hadn’t checked before.
Also, it turns out that Airbnb hasn’t been regulated in Oakland—not really.
A recent, beautifully reported story in the East Bay Express has the lowdown:
The East Bay … remains a wild west for short-term rentals. Right now almost anything goes. And of the existing laws that should pertain to short-term rentals here, enforcement has been almost nonexistent, despite the fact that both Oakland and Berkeley already each have more than 1,000 short-term rental listings posted on various platforms. In Oakland, less than two dozen of the people who rent housing through Airbnb and other platforms have paid the city’s hotel tax, which applies to anyone renting a living space on a less-than weekly basis. …
It’s clear that turning residential housing into commercial hotels can be very profitable for property owners and investors. Apartments and homes can be rented out as short-term rentals at far higher prices than what a landlord could get on the traditional long-term rental market….
Last fall, at his Airbnb micro-hotel, [a real estate speculator] hosted a meeting of real estate investors looking to cash in on the East Bay short-term rental market. … “Pricing above any normal long-term rental, but generally below an equivalent hotel rate can create significant additional income from the property,” Martin waxed like a real estate pro in the invite. “I think high-cost metro areas (and or tech/liberal) like San Francisco, New York, Austin, Portland, Seattle, and many more would be good targets.”
Another thing: Those local ordinances to regulate Airbnb that I’d heard about — that it turns out Oakland doesn’t have? San Francisco does have them. But they don’t seem to work especially well. For example, in SF, hosts can do more renting when they live at the property themselves. But a tenant’s rights advocate quoted in the Express story says this requirement is “basically unenforceable because you have no way of knowing if the host is at home, or just saying so.” Airbnb hosts, with political coordination and help from the company, succeeded in preventing stronger limits in San Francisco.
Posters like this one are part of a trend. People don’t like it when they are displaced. That’s why Airbnb might be, as Pete Harrison has put it, “a good small idea but a terrible big idea.” He writes:
Multiply the types of trade-offs that come with Airbnb across an entire neighborhood and what we are left with is Hipster Disney World—one that looks and maybe feels “authentic,” but one that has stopped functioning as a neighborhood is supposed to. Instead, it becomes experiential marketing, make-believe for lifestyle tourists.
The immediate, concentrated, conspicuous impacts of a single Airbnb booking are positive. As the company’s PR tells that story: “ For countless families, home sharing is an economic lifeline, making it possible to pay the bills.” But at the same time, Harrison observes, Airbnb guests “are people who I can’t build a local connection with … Their primary contribution instead is inadvertently putting pressure on my rent. … The more units there are devoted to Airbnb, the fewer there are for people who would be there to advocate for our neighborhood.”
This is what hits me, in that Oakland apartment. When booking I thought, if I book a room it’ll be someone’s spare room or something like that, one of the good Airbnb stories.
But scale has pushed the platform away from experiences like that. Spare rooms are not what made the company into a “unicorn” startup, valued at tens of billions of dollars.
And this brings me back, suddenly, to the public debate. I can’t help wondering whether, by focusing on racism inside Airbnb’s platform, we’re missing the larger story: the story of more significant harms to people and communities of color, who are displaced by the platform overall.
Because when a black guest tries to book, and the host is suddenly “busy” and won’t let them stay, that’s bad.
But when people of color lose their homes and—scaled across cities—communities are torn apart by this kind of dehumanized, unpeopled, gentrification-without-residents, that is horrible.
Seen in this light, I realize suddenly, Brian Chesky’s courageous-seeming stand against racism might actually be really, really smart business. It reinforces a story where the key racial justice question about Airbnb is whether or not guests of color have an equal opportunity to use the platform. And the more people participate in this racism-within-the-platform discussion—the bigger that discussion gets — the more the other, messier, more complicated discussion about the structural impact of short term rentals gets shunted to the side.
I don’t mean to suggest that the Bay Area’s housing problem is simple, or that Airbnb comes anywhere close to being the whole story. The Oakland neighborhood where I stayed has significantly more housing now than it did before gentrification began. Warehouses became apartments. That part, at least, of what is happening seems like progress. And, at least in Oakland, the real impact of the gig economy may have much more to do with the legions of well paid engineers who run sharing economy platforms than it does with individual Airbnb listings. I wrote much of this story in a new hipster coffee shop, and the owner pointed out that the building across the street—formerly a Sears store—was sold to Uber this fall for more than $100 million. The company will likely fill it with highly compensated engineers, who will doubtless want to live nearby.
On the corner, there’s a hipster ice cream shop where you can combine turmeric-ginger ice cream with asparagus ice cream if (for some strange reason) you want to. But not everything fits cleanly into a hipsters-vs.-locals story: while I’m at the counter trying to decipher the menu, an older black woman comes in, samples a new flavor, and considers whether to order her usual, or try something new. Something tells me she’s been in the neighborhood longer than this shop. The ice cream isn’t just for the new arrivals.
For me, there’s an immediate moral to only one small part of this story: I’m done booking stays with multi-property Airbnb hosts. Beyond that, I wonder, maybe it’s time for me — and for all of us — to take a step back and question the frame of the Airbnb racism debate. Because the structural, unconscious, inadvertent impacts of Airbnb, racially speaking, may be harder to see, harder to fix, and ultimately harder to bear than any disparities inside the platform.
PS: Thanks for reading. This story appeared in Equal Future, a short newsletter on tech and social justice that Upturn publishes every Thursday (here’s an example). If you’re interested, here’s the signup link for Equal Future.