Social Distortion

Can Airbnb Fix Its Discrimination Problem? Gay Houston Man Denied Housing Says No.

In the worst case of irony Buddy Fisher had ever encountered, he was told that he couldn't make an Airbnb reservation for the Austin Pride Parade — because he was gay.

Austin was the last city in which he would ever expect to face discrimination, he said. Fisher, of Houston, found a nice spot in a centralized location on South Congress Avenue, booked the reservation, went through the whole process and even paid. When Airbnb asked him why he was traveling in Austin, he mentioned the August Pride Parade. But then one hour after Airbnb confirmed his reservation, the host who owned the place sent a message to Fisher, telling him he was canceling the reservation.

“No LGBT people please,” the host, a user named Wasif, wrote. “I do not support people who are against humanity. Sorry.”

“What does that even mean?” Fisher said Monday, more than a week after the incident. “You 'don't support people against humanity,' yet you're turning someone away and discriminating against that person? Are you saying that about yourself or something?"

Fisher wasn't quite able to joke about the man's discrimination in this way directly after the exchange. He said it was a low point for him — until dozens of people responded to what happened with both anger and support.

Airbnb responded by removing the host's listing and kicking him off Airbnb for good, as the company does whenever anyone discriminates against guests because of their race, sexual orientation or a host of other reasons, thus violating their community standards. (Airbnb spokesman Nick Papas says the company has "tools" to make sure the bigoted person doesn't just create a new account and continue using Airbnb, but he wouldn't tell us how this works.)

But as these discriminatory incidents continue to happen across the country, many have begun to question if Airbnb's case-by-case responses are good enough, or whether there's more the room-sharing service could do to prevent discrimination. Because what happened to Fisher was anything but isolated.

In the past year, a gay couple in Galveston were kicked out of a woman's home when she realized they were gay — after they had already settled in. A black man from Washington, D.C., sued Airbnb after a host denied him housing under his real profile — but accepted him when he created a fake profile as a white man. And a transgender woman in Minneapolis was denied housing because of her gender identity. Both the transgender woman and the black man claimed that Airbnb did nothing to help them.

To top it off, three Harvard researchers even provided statistical proof of what they called “widespread discrimination” on Airbnb: In a December study, they found people with black-sounding names such as Lakisha or Rasheed were 16 percent less likely to be accepted by Airbnb hosts than your white-sounding Kristens and Brents.

After enough backlash piled up, Airbnb announced last month the company was reviewing its discrimination policy, which requires hosts to abide by all federal, state and local anti-discrimination and civil rights laws.

“We have a zero tolerance policy for discrimination and when we become aware of it we take action,” the company said in the letter, which Papas provided to the Houston Press. “While we all know that the challenge of unconscious bias has plagued societies for centuries, as a company we are responsible for doing all we can do to fight discrimination — and all of the pain it causes — and create a fair community on our platform for everyone.”

Fisher said he appreciated Airbnb's swift response to his own experience with discrimination — but doesn't actually think that whatever the company comes up with in this “policy review” will do much of anything to prevent people from being jerks. Discrimination, he said, is not something Airbnb can solve. And besides, Fisher added, who even reads the rules anyway?

“This is one of those things that shows we still have a lot of ground to cover,” Fisher said of the man who faux-politely told him, “No LGBT people please.” “There's a reason why we do these pride parades and festivals all around the nation and around the world. We take so many steps forward, but then we get knocked back with things like this. We just have to keep regaining that ground.”
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Meagan Flynn is a staff writer at the Houston Press who, despite covering criminal justice and other political squabbles in Harris County, drinks only one small cup of coffee per day.
Contact: Meagan Flynn