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Faced with complaints of discrimination, Airbnb partners with NAACP to recruit black hosts

Airbnb and the NAACP has announced a partnership to increase listings in minority communities. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People announced on Wednesday that it has teamed up with Airbnb, the home-sharing company beleaguered by discrimination complaints, to expand the service to more minority communities.

The century-old civil rights organization touted the move as a “landmark partnership” that it hopes will spread the economic benefits of tourism.

“For too long, black people and other communities of color have faced barriers to access new technology and innovations,” Derrick Johnson, interim president and chief executive of the NAACP, said in a prepared statement.

Johnson praised Airbnb’s commitment to bringing jobs and other economic opportunities to black communities, calling it a “tremendous step in the right direction for Silicon Valley to opens its doors to African Americans and other communities.”

Belinda Johnson, Airbnb’s chief business affairs officer, said in a written statement that the company’s model allowing hosts to decide when to rent out their space, keeping 97 percent of what they charge, has democratized capitalism.

“Our fastest-growing communities across major U.S. cities are in communities of color,” Johnson said, “and we’ve seen how home sharing is an economic lifeline for families.”

The company’s own analyses have shown that up to 50 percent of guest spending occurs in the neighborhoods where guests stay. A 2016 Airbnb study of its New York City host community found that the number of Airbnb guests grew 78 percent year-over-year in the 30 city Zip codes with the highest percentage of black residents, compared to 50 percent citywide. Similar studies last year by the company in Chicago’s South Side and Washington, D.C.’s Anacostia neighborhood found even higher rates of growth.  

Airbnb has been disputed in the District, as well as in other high-rent cities, because building owners and landlords often opt to list their housing, including rent-controlled apartments, on the site to make more money off tourists. The D.C. Council is considering new rules allowing property owners to rent out only one unit at a time, and only in their permanent homes.

As part of the partnership, announced at the NAACP’s convention in Baltimore, local NAACP chapters will work with Airbnb to launch a community campaign educating more minorities on the economic benefits of hosting and bringing travelers to their neighborhoods. Airbnb has committed to sharing 20 percent of its earnings from the community outreach efforts with the NAACP. The company has also committed to increasing the diversity of its U.S. employees from 9.6 percent to 11 percent by the end of the year, with guidance by the NAACP.

Airbnb, founded in 2008 and now operating in 50,000 cities in 191 countries, has faced a barrage of complaints over the years that hosts discriminate against minorities trying to book rentals. Incidents of discrimination occur so frequently that people share their stories of racial bias under the hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack.

The cases have also prompted minority entrepreneurs to launch their own home-sharing start-ups, including Innclusive and Noirbnb, targeting minorities who have experienced discrimination when trying to book using Airbnb.

Rohan Gilkes started Innclusive last year after he was repeatedly turned away when using Airbnb to look for a place to stay in Idaho. His white friend was able to book a home immediately. 

"It could be a net good to get more people from more diverse backgrounds involved in the sharing economy," Gilkes said in an interview with the Post Wednesday. "But the core problems that Airbnb has been having around race and discrimination are still there, as far as how the platform works."

A Harvard Business School study found that users whose names are perceived to be black find it 16 percent harder than whites to book lodging on Airbnb. Some Airbnb hosts would rather their properties remain vacant than rent to a black guest.

"The things that lead people to be discriminatory by looking at their photos and seeing that they are black and making judgments by their names -- all those things are still in place" at Airbnb, Gilkes said.

His company decided to remove users' names and photos until after bookings are confirmed. He said Innclusive has enabled between 7,000 and 8,000 bookings since its launch and has not received a single complaint of discrimination. The Tampa-based company has 200,000 properties in 127 countries on its platform.  

An Airbnb review last year “generally confirmed public reports that minorities struggle more than others to book a listing.” Airbnb spokesman Nick Papas said Wednesday it is taking a "series of steps to fight bias and promote inclusion, including experimenting with reducing the prominence of guest photos in the booking process." The company is also trying to increase the number of “Instant Book” listings, a feature that allows guests to book immediately without host approval.

Airbnb recently banned a California woman from hosting after she canceled a guest’s mountain cabin reservation at the last minute because of the guest’s race.

I wouldn’t rent to u if you were the last person on earth. One word says it all. Asian,” Tami Barker, the host, texted Dyne Suh, according to an image of the exchange Suh posted on Facebook.

When Suh replied that she would report Barker to Airbnb for being racist, Barker told her, “I will not allow this country to be told what to do by foreigners.”

Airbnb has published a detailed nondiscrimination policy and requires users to commit to treating all members of the Airbnb community without bias, regardless of race, religion, national origin, disability, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or age.

The company also has a new policy that guarantees alternate lodging for guests unable to book through Airbnb because of discrimination.

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