The Challenges of Using Airbnb With an ‘African American-Sounding’ Name

Rental requests from “Anne Murphy” went through 56 percent of the time; the rate for “Latonya Robinson” was only 35 percent.

Rasmus Andersson / Flickr

A new study by Harvard professors suggests that having a distinctively African American name makes it harder to rent a place on Airbnb.

Renters with white-sounding names booked successfully 50 percent of the time, compared to 42 percent for African American names, according to the working paper.

It doesn’t matter if the host was white or African American, if they were sharing the place or not, or whether it was expensive or cheap. On all levels, African American-sounding names had a harder time booking a room.

“On the whole, our analysis suggests a need for caution: while information can facilitate transactions, it also facilitates discrimination,” wrote the three researchers, Ben Edelman, Michael Luca, and Dan Svirsky.

To study discrimination, the authors sent 6,400 requests from profiles of fake Airbnb guests, using distinctively African American or distinctively white names, and without profile photos.  The researchers requested bookings in five cities—Baltimore, Dallas, Los Angeles, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C.—and found that the African American-sounding names were accepted less frequently across the board:

Edelman et al.

Airbnb’s reliance on real names opens the door for some discrimination on the part of the hosts, who get to decide who stays in their rental, the Harvard researchers argue.

Most marketplaces, such as eBay or Expedia, either allow screen names or allow anonymous activity. For Expedia, there is no one screening a name to decide yes or no. On eBay or Amazon marketplace, people can use any name they want.

It’s a problem that becomes more alarming given Airbnb’s growth rate. The researchers created a Chrome browser plug-in to mask identifying information on the Airbnb site and has encouraged the home-rental site to adopt the same stance. Having more instant-book properties, where, as with Expedia, the guest doesn't need approval from the homeowner before booking, would also help close the gap.

An Airbnb spokesperson told Business Insider that they are already in touch with the authors of the study to work together with them.

“We are committed to making Airbnb one of the most open, trusted, diverse, transparent communities in the world. We recognize that bias and discrimination are significant challenges, and we welcome the opportunity to work with anyone that can help us reduce potential discrimination in the Airbnb community,” the spokesperson said.

This is not the first time Airbnb has been accused of having a discrimination problem. In 2014, a Harvard study also involving Edelman found the site’s large photos of hosts’ houses made it easy to determine their race and encouraged bias.

This article appears courtesy of Business Insider.