Tourists with a Moroccan-sounding name are structurally discriminated against on Airbnb, according to a new study by Professor Pieter-Paul Verhaeghe and his team at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. Professional hosts account for the vast majority of discrimination. The research team carried out more than 1,000 correspondence tests on Airbnb during the summer of 2021. Although Airbnb strongly condemns racism, the research findings suggest that their anti-discrimination policy is insufficient to tackle the problem.
Professor Verhaeghe has previously demonstrated ethnic discrimination on Belgium’s housing market, but Airbnb has remained a blind spot for a long time. There are only a handful of studies on the issue globally and these are several years old.
To address this gap, he and his researchers conducted correspondence tests, in which fictitious candidates contacted a landlord asking to rent the property. Posing as domestic tourists, they contacted 1,043 owners of Airbnb properties in the Brussels Capital Region. They asked at the beginning of the summer holidays if they could book the property for a weekend in September. Each person had a similar profile and differed only in the ethnic origin of their names, with Belgian, Moroccan or Polish-sounding names.
Discrimination among professionals
The tests showed that people with a Moroccan name were structurally less able to book a property than those with a Belgian name. People with a Belgian name received a positive response in half of cases, compared to 44% for those with a Moroccan name. The discrimination is entirely due to the professional hosts, Prof Verhaeghe explains, where the difference in positive reaction amounts to 15 percentage points (see Figure 1). Professional hosts are those who offer two or more properties on Airbnb or one property for more than 120 days a year. Among non-professional hosts, the researchers found no discrimination. These hosts are private individuals who, in line with the original Airbnb philosophy, offer their own homes for rent only sporadically, up to 120 days a year. The study found no discrimination against tourists with a Polish name.
“We suspect that private hosts in Brussels are much more open to diversity than professional hosts,” say Prof Verhaeghe and his colleague Billie Martiniello. “Those who have problems with diversity will be more reluctant to rent their own homes to tourists on Airbnb. Among professional hosts, this is much less the case. They are not renting their own home so they have less contact with tourists.”
Instant book function
In 2016, Airbnb launched an anti-discrimination directive, with measures including an “instant book” function. Hosts can voluntarily enable this function, which automatically confirms booking requests. The VUB study shows that this feature is very effective: there was no discrimination at all among hosts using this function. However, the feature is only voluntary, so the researchers recommend that Airbnb makes it mandatory for all hosts.
The study was funded by Prospective Research - Innoviris.
Prof Pieter-Paul Verhaeghe (EN, NL)
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