Calling on Airbnb to Eliminate Discrimination On Its Site

The national Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers’ Committee) and its Boston affiliate the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice (Boston Lawyers’ Committee) issued an inquiry to Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky raising concerns regarding growing evidence of discrimination facilitated by its site and urging Airbnb to take action to eliminate discrimination in its $25 billion online-based rental market.

This action follows the Boston Lawyers’ Committee’s May 2016 letter to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Julian Castro, calling upon HUD to investigate potential violations of the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) in the Airbnb market. The organization’s call for action also comes on the heels of growing evidence of racial discrimination faced by African American, Latino and minority Airbnb users who are subject to discriminatory treatment based on profile photos or presumptions drawn from users’ names.

“Mr. Chesky took a step in the right direction by addressing this issue in opening the company’s Open Air technical conference, but there is more work to be done to eradicate unlawful discriminatory practices by Airbnb hosts against prospective guests,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.  “No person should be denied or refused access to rental housing on the basis of their race, regardless of whether that housing is sought in person or online.  Companies such as Airbnb are at the forefront of the rapidly growing sharing economy but their efforts to curb discrimination simply have not kept pace.  Airbnb must take greater action to end the discrimination.”

Airbnb users have the legal right to be free from racial discrimination in Airbnb rental transactions. Two critical civil rights laws, 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and 42 U.S.C. § 1982, prohibit intentional racial discrimination in the making and enforcing of contracts and the sale and rental of property. The FHA and Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans discrimination in public accommodations, also prohibit discrimination on Airbnb in certain circumstances.

“Airbnb has a social responsibility to be a proactive partner in the work of rooting out discrimination in its marketplace,” said Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice. “There are straightforward, cost-effective steps that Airbnb can take to reduce the role of implicit bias in Airbnb rentals and to more quickly and effectively respond to complaints of overt discrimination.”

The letters to both Mr. Chesky and to Secretary Castro included practical recommendations for making Airbnb a fairer platform for short-term property rentals. In order to reduce bias and to create fewer opportunities for prejudiced hosts to act on their discriminatory preferences, the Lawyers’ Committee and the Boston Lawyers’ Committee have recommended that Airbnb no longer require prospective renters to use their names and eliminate its policy of “strongly encouraging” the inclusion of profile pictures. To effectively address overt, intentional discrimination, the civil rights groups urged Airbnb to adopt robust procedures for identifying and removing discriminatory posts, responding to complaints of discrimination, and barring users who engage in discriminatory conduct.