A former Airbnb host in California who made discriminatory comments and canceled a guest’s reservation at the last minute has been ordered to pay a $5,000 fine — and must take a course in Asian American studies as part of her agreement with the state’s fair housing agency, officials said.
The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing said Wednesday it had reached an agreement with the host, identified by her attorney as Tami Barker, and with Dyne Suh, a law student at the University of California at Los Angeles, who made a February reservation at Barker’s mountain cabin through Airbnb.
Airbnb had banned Barker after the incident in February.
“I am very glad that the outcome of this case includes taking an Asian American studies course,” Suh said in a Facebook post. “I believe that the more people learn about and understand our history and our struggles, the more they can feel empathy toward us and treat us as equals.”
In an April interview with The Washington Post, Suh said she and her fiance had booked Barker’s listing, described as a “Tree House Loft and Private Bathroom” in Running Springs, Calif., about a month before their trip. They had been looking forward to a short Presidents’ Day weekend vacation in Big Bear Lake, a popular ski getaway about two hours by car east of Los Angeles, she said.
Suh later messaged Barker to ask if she could add two friends and two puppies to the reservation and was told it would be fine. The Post corroborated Suh’s account with images of their full conversations through text messages and the Airbnb app.
On Feb. 17, the group of four set out up the mountain. An intense winter storm was then hitting the area, making road conditions hazardous and prompting flash-flood warnings.
Suh said that they were minutes away from the cabin when she sent a message to Barker through the Airbnb app to let her know they were close and asked how they might pay for adding the two friends to the reservation.
That’s when their trip took a turn.
“If you think 4 people and 2 dogs ate getting a room fir $50 a night on big bear mountain during the busiest weekend of the year ..… You are insanely high,” Barker texted her, according to Suh’s images of the exchange. The host also called Suh “a con artist” and canceled the reservation.
Suh said she was shocked, then protested, telling Barker she had saved their earlier messages showing she had agreed to the reservation changes.
“Go ahead. I wouldn’t rent to u if you were the last person on earth,” Barker wrote back to Suh. “One word says it all. Asian”
When Suh replied that she would report the host to Airbnb for being racist, the host told her to “Go ahead” and “It’s why we have trump,” a reference to President Trump.
“And I will not allow this country to be told what to do by foreigners,” the host added.
Suh posted pictures of the exchange to her Facebook page. “Just had an airbnb cancel on me spewing racism,” she wrote.
To compound the problem, the continued snow was making it increasingly dangerous to get down the mountain, according to Suh. “By the grace of God,” Suh said in a Facebook comment, there was a crew from KTLA 5 News that happened to be parked near them on the mountain while covering the winter storm. One of the station’s reporters, Steve Kuzj, interviewed Suh using his smartphone.
Still reeling from what had just happened, Suh sobbed as she recounted what she said were the host’s messages. Video from that KTLA 5 interview was uploaded to YouTube, where it was widely shared.
Suh, 26, said in the video that she has been living in the United States since she was 3 years old.
“I’m an American citizen. This is my home,” Suh said in the video. “It stings. It stings that after living in the U.S. for over 23 years, this is what happens.”
Suh said Airbnb issued them a full refund immediately and offered to reimburse the group for a hotel, and that they found other accommodations “after two hours of roaming around the snowy mountain.”
Airbnb, which in recent years has faced growing complaints of racial discrimination by its hosts, issued a statement in April calling the host’s behavior “abhorrent and unacceptable” and announcing that she had been banned from hosting. On Friday, Airbnb spokesman Nick Papas referred back to the company’s April statement and did not provide further comment about the California fair housing agency’s decision.
“We have worked to provide the guest with our full support and in line with our nondiscrimination policy, this host has been permanently removed from the Airbnb platform,” Papas said in an email.
In addition to paying $5,000 in damages, Barker issued a personal apology to Suh and agreed to comply with anti-discrimination laws, attend training, take a college-level course in Asian American studies, participate in a community education panel, perform volunteer service at a civil rights organization and report rental data to the California fair housing department for four years, the agency said in a statement. Under California’s civil rights laws, the statutory minimum penalty for discrimination in places of public accommodation is $4,000.
“While regretful for her impetuous actions and comments made on the evening of February 17, 2017, Ms. Barker is pleased to have resolved her claims with Ms. Dyne Suh and the DFEH in a manner that can hopefully bring a positive outcome out of an unfortunate incident,” Barker’s attorney, Edward Y. Lee, said in an email to The Post.
Suh said she hoped her story would encourage others to speak out against discrimination.
“Your pain is not insignificant and you are not alone,” Suh said in a Facebook post. “Asian Americans are often left out of conversations about race relations, even though we are also targets of racism and discrimination. The more we speak out, the harder it becomes for people to ignore, deny, or trivialize our lived experiences of being discriminated against like this day-to-day.”
Earlier this year, Airbnb agreed to allow the department to audit certain hosts in California for racial discrimination, according to the agency. The company also began notifying those who felt discriminated against by an Airbnb host of their right to file a complaint with the department.
DFEH director Kevin Kish praised Suh for filing a complaint — and also said he was “heartened” by Barker’s willingness to embrace the litany of corrective measures.
“The real story is how a charged and painful encounter led to an opportunity for reconciliation between the people involved, and to an opportunity for them to enhance the public’s understanding of discrimination and civil rights in California,” Kish said in a statement.
Kish told the Guardian that an agreement between Barker and Suh was reached last week in mediation sessions.
“We want there to be strong anti-discrimination protections and preventions of harm, but we recognize that the world isn’t divided into good guys and bad guys,” Kish told the newspaper. “Humans have biases and we also need to recognize that humans change.”
Founded in 2008, Airbnb is now a $30 billion company that operates in 50,000 cities in 191 countries. In response to a rising number of allegations that hosts were refusing certain guests because of their race, the company launched a three-month “comprehensive review” last year that “generally confirmed public reports that minorities struggle more than others to book a listing.”
In response, the company said it would require all users to agree to the following commitment:
We believe that no matter who you are, where you are from, or where you travel, you should be able to belong in the Airbnb community. By joining this community, you commit to treat all fellow members of this community, regardless of race, religion, national origin, disability, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or age, with respect, and without judgment or bias.
The company also rolled out several measures to fight discrimination on its platform, including publishing a more detailed nondiscrimination policy, trying to increase the number of “Instant Book” listings and making user profile photos less prominent during the booking process, presumably to prevent hosts from discriminating based on guest appearances.
Under a new “Open Doors” policy, Airbnb said it would guarantee alternate lodging for a guest who was unable to book an Airbnb listing because of discrimination. An Airbnb representative pointed to that new “Open Doors” policy when asked about Suh’s case on Friday.
Airbnb received some criticism for not doing away with user photos entirely, The Post’s Emily Badger reported last year. However, civil rights groups and others who had been pushing for changes at the company welcomed the new policies as a step in the right direction.
“The metric of success, though, will be less dehumanizing, less discriminatory treatment of black folks,” Rashad Robinson, the executive director of the group Color of Change, which had organized a public campaign pointing out racial bias on Airbnb, told The Post then. “We think the work that has been done has been good work, and we hope it results in change. But the change is what will determine how successful all of this is.”
Lindsey Bever contributed to this report.