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Study: Airbnb guests with “black” names find it harder to book rentals

A staff inputs data into a computer at the warehouse of Konga online shopping company in Ilupeju district in Nigeria's commercial capital Lagos.
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A frustrating search.
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If you’re a black Airbnb user that’s had a sneaking suspicion hosts are giving you the run-around when you try to book a rental, you might be on to something.

working paper (pdf) from three Harvard Business School researchers suggests that users with black names have more trouble booking rentals. While the company doesn’t require users to post a picture when they sign up with the service, it does require a name. That transparency, which might seem like it helps establish trust, doesn’t help everyone equally, the researchers found.

“[Our] result contributes to a small but growing body of literature suggesting that discrimination persists—and we argue may even be exacerbated—in online platforms,” the researchers wrote.

The team made inquiries into just under 6,400 rentals on the site in Baltimore, Dallas, Los Angeles, St. Louis, and Washington, DC, using identical users details except for names that might have indicated their race (“white” Laurie vs. “black” Latoya, for example). They found that “black” guests were accepted roughly 16% less often than “white” guests.

And the researchers found the results weren’t necessarily about bias among white hosts:

On the whole, we find that results are remarkably persistent. Both African American and White hosts discriminate against African-American guests; both male and female hosts discriminate; both male and female African-American guests are discriminated against. Effects persist both for hosts that offer an entire property and for hosts who share the property with guests. Discrimination persists among experienced hosts, including those with multiple properties and those with many reviews. Discrimination persists and is of similar magnitude in high and low priced units, in diverse and homogeneous neighborhoods.

The company said it has reached out to the researchers involved to discuss the problem.

“We are committed to making Airbnb one of the most open, trusted, diverse, transparent communities in the world,” a company spokesperson wrote in an email. “We recognize 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.We are in touch with the authors of this study and we look forward to a continuing dialogue with them.”

The same group of researchers has looked into other alleged discrimination on the platform, noting in a paper last year that non-black hosts were able to charge 12% more than black hosts for similar rentals. The company did not immediately respond to a question about whether it had reached out to the researchers regarding their earlier findings.

The Harvard group’s findings are reminiscent of the 2003 NBER working paper that they modeled their most recent study after, titled “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination.” In that study, the authors found people with ”black-sounding” names were less likely to get a call back for a job interview than “white-sounding” names, even if they had similar credentials or were given the benefit of an address marking a “good home.”

Other companies like Uber employ similar name and picture disclosures in order to provide transparency. However, as Fusion’s Latoya Peterson explained over the summer, Uber has the ability to better police its service.

“Uber’s code of conduct isn’t so different than that of taxis—after all, the State of New York mandates that drivers take people where they want to go—but Uber enforces the policy better, with an immediate system designed to report drivers that are rude or refuse service for no apparent reason,” she wrote.

In Airbnb’s case, the Harvard researchers suggest that the company should scale back some of the transparency it offers users in order to ease discrimination.

“Because online platforms choose which information is available to parties during a transaction, they can prevent the transmission of information that is irrelevant or potentially pernicious,” they wrote. “Our results highlight a platform’s role in preventing discrimination or facilitating discrimination, as the case may be.”

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