Airbnb's 'belong anywhere' undercut by bias complaintsJessica Guynn

Airbnb is having a hard time living up to its "belong anywhere" slogan as people question whether it's doing enough to crack down on discrimination.

The popular home-sharing service that's supposed to open doors around the globe is being accused of slamming them shut on African Americans and other minority groups, with reports of discrimination from Airbnb hosts mounting. The latest, made public Sunday, involved a well-known Hollywood producer and transgender woman who says it took a viral tweet for Airbnb to ban a host who turned her away because of her gender identity.

Belonging isn't just about who uses the service. The fast-growing San Francisco company employs very few African Americans and Latinos.

Airbnb last week pledged to take on discrimination and unconscious bias, problems it says have "plagued societies for centuries."

On Monday, Airbnb said a new program is in the works to recruit more underrepresented minorities in computer science and data science. It also tapped civil rights advocate Laura Murphy, the former head of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington D.C. Legislative Office, to help lead a "comprehensive" review of how hosts who rent their homes on Airbnb pick guests.

The announcements came as Airbnb held its annual OpenAir conference, which this year has a big focus on combating discrimination on online platforms and eliminating bias in hiring decisions.

Those topics are taking on greater urgency as Airbnb confronts the question: Does the design of its service makes it too easy for hosts to act on their own biases?

On Airbnb, users identify themselves with their real name and a photograph — information some hosts use to avoid renting to African Americans.

A Harvard Business School study found widespread discrimination by Airbnb hosts against guests whose names sounded distinctly black. Black Airbnb users have shared their stories of discrimination under the hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack.

An African-American man is suing Airbnb for racial discrimination, alleging it did nothing when he was rejected by a host because of his race. And Airbnb banned a host in North Carolina last week after he used racist language to reject a 28-year-old Nigerian woman trying to reserve his home because she was black.

CEO Brian Chesky said the incident was "disturbing and unacceptable." "Racism and discrimination have no place on Airbnb," he tweeted.

Yet another incident soon fanned controversy. Hollywood producer Shadi Petosky says she complained privately to Airbnb last July that she was turned away by a host who said she felt "uncomfortable" after Petosky disclosed she is a trans woman. Airbnb later promoted the host to "super host" status, which rewards hosts who get five-star reviews from guests.

"They let it slide," Petosky told USA TODAY. That is, until Petosky tweeted about her experience on Sunday.

"Discrimination has no place in the Airbnb community. We are removing this host from Airbnb," Airbnb spokesman Nick Papas said in an emailed statement.

Airbnb notes that it prohibits content "that promotes discrimination, bigotry, racism, hatred, harassment or harm against any individual or group, and we require all users to comply with local laws and regulations."

But its reputation is starting to take a major hit on social media. "Was thinking of using Airbnb soon but with these recent racist horror stories I've been hearing.. madness," wrote one Twitter user.


Already two start-ups are looking to exploit Airbnb's troubles. Noirbnb and Noirebnb both say they plan to launch travel services for African Americans.

Noirbnb said on Twitter that its founders met with Airbnb in November to propose their solution to #AirbnbWhileBlack "before it happened."

"They slept, so we're solving it ourselves," the start-up tweeted. "Our founders have been working on Noirbnb for months to make sure that our people aren't discriminated against ever again while traveling."

Rohan Gilkes, a 40-year-old tech entrepreneur who splits his time between Tampa, Fla., and Washington, D.C., says he began working on Noirebnb 2 1/2 weeks ago after trying twice to book a house in Idaho but being told the dates he wanted were not available. A white friend was able to book the house without problem.

Gilkes says Airbnb contacted him after his Medium post about the experience went viral.

Soon his inbox filled with people who say they had similar experiences based on race, sexual orientation or physical disability.

"I felt a responsibility to do something," said Gilkes who hopes to launch the service in six weeks.

Entrepreneurs Ronnia Cherry, a 30-year-old marketing professional from Miama, and Stefan Grant, a 27-year-old musician and producer from Washington, D.C., say they rented a house in Atlanta while Grant was performing at a musical festival there in October.

"The next day the neighbors called the police because they thought we were robbing the house. The cops showed up with guns drawn," Grant says. "Luckily we were able to deescalate the situation."

Airbnb spotted the selfie they took with the police officers and reached out to Cherry and Grant to offer free bookings on the service.

"But we knew that wasn't going to solve the problem. We wanted to make sure our situation never happened again," Grant said. "That's when we conceptualized Noirbnb."

Airbnb flew the pair out to San Francisco to hear them out. "We told them it would happen again," Grant said. "I am not sure if they thought we were joking or if they didn't take us seriously."

Cherry and Grant say they checked in again with Airbnb which, with discrimination complaints making headlines, was working on its own initiatives.

"We decided racism and discrimination were still happening so it was pretty much  up to us to solve the issue," Grant said.

Over the weekend, they announced Noirbnb.

"The response has been amazing and beyond anything we expected," Cherry said.

Other tech companies have taken a similar approach. Misterb&b, which books short-term lodging for gay men, got its start four years ago when French entrepreneur and company co-founder Matthieu Jost says he booked a shared apartment in Barcelona with his partner. When they arrived, the host was uncomfortable and asked: "Are you going to sleep in the same bed?"

Airbnb, which sports a $25.5 billion valuation, serves markets all over the globe, but its staffers are not nearly so representative. In October, Airbnb reported that its workforce is 54% male, 63% white, 22% Asian, 7% Latino and 3% African American.

That's largely in keeping with other Silicon Valley tech companies, where a fraction of employees are African American or Latino. In March, Airbnb hired its first diversity chief, David King, to accelerate efforts to hire and retain more underrepresented minorities.

"We will build better products if our team is as diverse as the community we serve," Mike Curtis, Airbnb's vice president of engineering said. "We are determined to attract and retain people from diverse backgrounds at Airbnb and we hope that Airbnb Connect opens up new opportunities for people."

The new program, Airbnb Connect, will offer temporary gigs to people looking to make a career transition. People with two to five years of experience in other fields will spend six months learning the skills needed to work in the tech industry and will be offered an opportunity to join Airbnb, said Airbnb which is working with non-profit Coalition for Queens and education company Galvanize to recruit talent for the program.

Three people will be selected through Engineering Connect for a deep dive into computer science curriculum. Eligible candidates will have two or more years of work experience and have completed a boot camp or similar computer science training program. Applications open in July, start in September

Eight people will be selected for Data Science Connect, which enrolls them in Galvanize's training at 25% of the tuition cost and three months in Airbnb's San Francisco headquarters working with data scientists there.