July 26, 2016
The battle over whether home-rental service Airbnb has a race problem is making its way to the Democratic National Convention this week. A coalition of politicians, housing advocates and tenants plans to launch an attack against the hospitality behemoth at the DNC in an effort to raise awareness about allegations of racial discrimination with the service.
The Share Better coalition—which has been linked to a powerful hotel workers’ union—has already created a sophisticated lobbying effort to increase regulatory hurdles for Airbnb. It argues that Airbnb’s listings enable tenants to “violate their leases” and rob cities like New York or San Francisco of affordable housing. Now it is upping the ante, threatening legislative action to fight what it sees as a service that discriminates against minority hosts and guests. Share Better will run television, newspaper and online ads in Philadelphia featuring a black woman, Quirtina Crittendera, giving a first-hand account of the discrimination she says she faced while trying to secure a booking on Airbnb. The ad will air on NBC and cable networks MSNBC, CNBC and CNN, and on a truck that will be driving around the perimeter of the convention center. “The only thing Airbnb seems to be doing is avoid accountability, finding loopholes in the law to escape any blame when my civil rights are being violated,” she says in the segment. One often-quoted study from the Harvard Business School found that guests with distinctively African-American names were roughly 16% less likely to be accepted than identical guests with distinctively white names. Following that, stories of discrimination began creeping up on Twitter under the hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack. A Virginian black man, Gregory Selden, is the first user to file a lawsuit against the company under the Fair Housing and Civil Rights Acts claiming the company violated his civil rights when he couldn’t book a room. Airbnb has called the Share Better campaign misinformed, and labeled it a hotel industry-funded effort to prevent families from renting their homes. It has vowed to tackle the issue of discrimination head on. Last week, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky announced the company had hired Obama’s former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and civil rights attorney John Relman to craft a strong anti-discrimination policy for the company. Airbnb will host a panel at the DNC on Tuesday, co-sponsored by BET Networks, on the sharing economy that will honor members of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), a civil rights activist group. It will also run the same ads it recently unveiled in New York, which feature renters talking about how home sharing helps lower- and middle-class families make ends meet. While Airbnb has close ties to and the blessing of the Democratic establishment—its Head of Global Policy Chris Lehane is a former aide to Bill Clinton, and Clark Stevens, Airbnb’s Director of Public Engagement, was formerly at the Department of Homeland Security—others in the party are less supportive. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, for instance, joined by Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Brian Schatz of Hawaii, recently urged the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to look into whether companies like Airbnb are exacerbating housing shortages and racial discrimination.