Want to Rent Through Airbnb? Don’t Have a ‘Black’ Name

Harvard researchers found profiles for names such as Lakisha and Darnell are rejected by hosts more frequently than people with ‘white’-sounding names.
(Photo: Martin Bureau/Getty Images)
Dec 11, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Changing a person’s name on a résumé from one that is ethnic-sounding to one that seems “whiter” has been shown to result in more contact from hiring managers. But should someone who wants to rent a room through Airbnb have to “whiten” their profile? According to a study released on Thursday from researchers at Harvard Business School, it seems racially based bias is alive and well in the sharing economy too.

Harvard researchers found that Airbnb hosts are 16 percent less likely to accept booking requests from prospective renters who have “distinctly African-American” names than from people who have “distinctly white” names—even when the prospective renters had otherwise identical profiles. As a result, the researchers are recommending that the rental housing website allow guests to use pseudonyms so that they are not racially identifiable.

RELATED: Airbnb Releases Host Data, but Activists Say It Doesn’t Add Up

“Life is tough if you’re a black guest on Airbnb,” Ben Edelman, an associate professor and one of the study’s authors, told Bloomberg Business. “Particularly when you compare it to the baseline of the way things used to be. If you’re a black guest, you just make a reservation at the Marriott.”

In a statement responding to the study, the San Francisco–based company said that it is “committed to making Airbnb one of the most open, trusted, diverse, transparent communities in the world.” The company also said it recognizes “that bias and discrimination are significant challenges, and we welcome the opportunity to work with anyone that can help us reduce potential discrimination in the Airbnb community.”

For the study, titled Racial Discrimination in the Sharing Economy, the researchers created 6,400 fake Airbnb profiles that were identical except for the names. They chose 10 “distinctively white”–sounding names—such as Allison Sullivan and Greg O’Brien—and 10 “distinctively black”–sounding names—such as Lakisha Jones and Darnell Jackson—from Massachusetts birth records from the 1970s.

The researchers then sent messages to Airbnb hosts in five cities—Baltimore, Dallas, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C.—asking to rent a room in their apartment during a weekend in September. The study’s authors controlled for race, age, and gender and found that regardless of whether the Airbnb host was white or black, young or old, male or female, requests from white guests were accepted more frequently.

RELATED: Can Removing Names From College and Job Applications Cut Discrimination?

“Clearly, the manager of a Holiday Inn cannot examine names of potential guests and reject them based on race,” the authors wrote. “Yet, this is commonplace on Airbnb.”

Such discriminatory behavior makes it more difficult for black renters to find a place to stay, but it also has a financial impact on apartment owners who list rooms on Airbnb. “Hosts who reject African-American guests are able to find a replacement guest only 35 percent of the time,” the study’s authors wrote.

Edelman has previously conducted research that found white hosts of Airbnb can charge 12 percent more for rooms than black ones. This latest research comes on the heels of a controversy about the safety of Airbnb listings. In November, journalist Zak Stone wrote on Medium about the company’s response to his father’s death on a property with unsafe conditions that was rented through Airbnb.

As far as bias against a prospective guest because of a “black-sounding” name, the Harvard researchers wrote that some Airbnb hosts may be legally liable for violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin. To curb such bias, the authors suggested that Airbnb should conduct its own audits of hosts using their research methods. It seems Airbnb might be interested in doing that. “We are in touch with the authors of this study and we look forward to a continuing dialogue with them,” the company said in its statement.