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How Airbnb plans to quash racist hosts

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Short term rental platforms emphasize some uncomfortable truths about modern society

San Francisco-based home sharing site Airbnb has a problem with racism.

More specifically, the cities and communities in which Airbnb hosts are the ones with the problem. Short-term-rental sites are just one more way people experience it.

Still, when faced with things like a paper from Harvard Business School showing that some Airbnb hosts rejected fictional renters with "distinctively African-American names" but accepted identical applications with white names, the company is in the awkward position of figuring out whether their own policies exacerbate the issue.

The company employed former ACLU legislative director Laura Murphy to study Airbnb’s practices. Murphy in turn tapped people like former Attorney General Eric Holder. A 32-page document released on Thursday summarizes her findings and the new policies the short-term rental company has drafted.

Some highlights:

  • Starting in November, Airbnb users will have to sign off on a statement declaring (in part) "By joining this community, you commit to treat all fellow members, regardless of race, religions, national origin, disability, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or age, with respect and without judgment or bias."
  • The company now has a team of researchers they say works exclusively to analyze Airbnb data for evidence of bias.
  • Airbnb will soon premiere a new feature that lets you rent certain listings instantly, without the host’s review. (Thus narrowing the window for unjust rejections.)
  • The company says that if any users loses a booking due to unfair discrimination, an Airbnb employee will step in to find a new booking for them.
  • The company will also offer hosts training about the perils of unconscious bias.
  • Since racist (or sexist, or homophobic, etc) hosts often claim that a vacant unit is not actually vacant and then turn around and rent it to someone else, the company will soon lock out calendar dates once they’re reported non-vacant.
  • In perhaps the most intriguing move, Airbnb promises to make itself more diverse. Right now, only 9.64 percent of Airbnb employees are from "underrepresented communities." The company will employ new hiring policies, looking to bump that up to at least 11 percent by the end of 2017, with more goals for future years.

You can read the full report here.

Some of the proposals seem smart, and Murphy spends six pages vouching for the company’s sincerity. A few policies are head scratchers, though. For example, Airbnb declined to eliminate profile photos because "profile photos are essential to Airbnb’s overall mission of building a community and creating durable, lasting relationships between host and guests."

Hosts and guests are going to see each other face to face, why do they need photos beforehand for a "durable, lasting relationship?" And doesn’t quashing discrimination matter more anyway?

(When asked, Airbnb spokesperson Nick Papas deferred to the report. Murphy’s own conclusion that "guests shouldn’t’ be required to hide behind anonymity when trying to find a place to stay. Which at least has a bit more substance to it.)

Airbnb hosts over 2 million listings worldwide. In 2014, it advertised 640,000 hosts, a number that has surely climbed since then.