A Year Later: Airbnb as a Racial Gentrification Tool

January 30, 2018

by Murray Cox of Inside Airbnb

It's been almost a year since Inside Airbnb released its landmark study "Faces of Airbnb: NYC, Airbnb as a Racial Gentrification Tool", and with the recent publication of new research that cites our study, we wanted to take the opportunity to talk about the response to the Racial Gentrification study, and also in particular how Airbnb reacted to the research.

To recap, the main findings of the report were that:

These disparities are in the context of the damage Airbnb does to New York City's housing supply. This is demonstrated by research from Housing Conservation Coordinators and Mobilization for Justice, "Short Changing New York City The impact of Airbnb on New York City’s housing market", and the just released research from McGill University "The High Cost of Short-Term Rentals in New York City". The key findings from the most recent, McGill University study were:

The existence of Airbnb in most neighborhoods is damaging enough, more so in historically Black, gentrifying neighborhoods. On top of that, the racial disparity makes Airbnb not only a gentrification tool, but an extractive, unequitable racial gentrification tool.

Airbnb's Response

A look at Airbnb's response to our research starts with the two major articles Airbnb and their spokespeople published:

The criticisms made in the above two articles are debunked below, but it's worth noting, that one of these articles was published by Airbnb spokesperson Michael Nutter before the Inside Airbnb report was even released, from a draft of the Executive Summary which was obtained by Airbnb and leaked to the press. The criticisms were highly technical and pseudo-scientific in nature, which is absurd given the authors were not able to even read the full report which detailed the methodology they were criticizing.

Despite their voracious attack, Airbnb has never denied that racial disparities existed in their host community in Black neighborhoods. Their passive acknowledgement of the issue turned into a Black host recruitment drive when in August 2017, Airbnb signed a revenue sharing deal with the NAACP in exchange for signing up Black hosts, and then hired Danny Glover, a formerly respected activist, as an "adviser to reach out to communities of color and encourage more non-white hosts to sign up with the home-rental service."

The Airbnb Crisis Management Playbook

If we examine previous racial issues with Airbnb, their playbook is always the same: Deny the issue or criticise the messenger; take control of the PR and visibility; use paid spokespeople of Color; propose solutions that have good optics but more importantly revenue positive.

This is shown clearly in the fallout from #AirbnbWhileBlack, which highlighted the racial discrimination of guests by Airbnb hosts, facilitated by Airbnb platform "features":

  1. (December 2015) research published by researchers at Harvard Business School, found that guests with "African-American names are 16% less likely to be accepted relative to identical guests with distinctively White names"
  2. Airbnb dismissed earlier research from the same researchers as "subjective and inaccurate", Airbnb say they are "talking to the researchers" and welcomed "the opportunity to work with anyone that can help [them] reduce potential discrimination"
  3. (May 2016) After having done nothing to address racial discrimination on Airbnb, the problem becomes widely known via the experiences of a Black guest, who was denied accommodation and then created the twitter hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack
  4. (July 2016) Airbnb finally owns the problem, signs up with former Attorney General Eric Holder and (September 2016) they propose a solution such as promoting Instant Bookable Airbnb's, a more commercial type of Airbnb listing that is "always available"
  5. Airbnb's solutions are found to be ineffective, but they increase Airbnb's revenue

Airbnb Defenders, or Paid Spokespeople?

Airbnb's panel of critics and community voices, with a little investigation, are nothing more than paid spokespeople and Airbnb hosts. They all have an economic interest in the success of Airbnb.

If we unpack the cast of critics from the articles mentioned above, we have the following spokespeople:

Airbnb Defender

Disclosed Credentials

Links to Airbnb

Michael Nutter

ex-Mayor of Philadelphia

Appointed as paid Chair of Airbnb's "Mayoral Advisory Board" after ending his term as Mayor by legalizing Airbnb in Philadelphia.

Minister Kirsten John Foy

Northeast regional director of the National Action Network

Paid by Airbnb to perform "community engagement and educational outreach".

Dr. Robert W. Livingston, PhD

Professor at the Harvard Kennedy School

Contracted for work on Unconscious Bias training for Airbnb Hosts.

Laura Murphy

Civil rights leader and former head of the ACLU’s Washington Legislative office.

Paid to work on Airbnb's Anti-Discrimination review

John M. Eason

PhD, Texas A&M University

Airbnb has provided funding to support his research on the impact of short-term rental policies on hosts of various income levels across the U.S.. Airbnb commissioned him to provide research on Airbnb, Housing, and The District of Columbia.

It's highly concerning when the ONLY supporters of Airbnb are their economic dependents. While the hotel industry does critique Airbnb, there are also a broad network of critics amongst academics, long-time and irreproachable housing/tenant advocates and neighborhood associations.

Response to Airbnb Criticism

Airbnb's criticisms have been carefully collated and a response is provided below.



Not peer reviewed

Many pieces of academic research and important findings from journalists and the social justice world are not peer reviewed. It was not required, desired nor practical to obtain peer review of the Faces of Airbnb report that was produced by Inside Airbnb.

In contrast, none of Airbnb's commissioned or internal research has ever been peer reviewed.

The peer research process can take some time, however there is a growing body of research about discrimination in Airbnb (in different geographical regions, time periods, about race versus sexual orientation versus religion etc.)., some of which have been peer-reviewed, and are almost universally critical of Airbnb for both discrimination and its impact on residential communities.

All data that was used for the Faces Of report is public data, available for download from Inside Airbnb, and/or reproducible.

According to Google Scholar, Inside Airbnb data and research has been cited in more than 100 academic papers and more than 30 that discuss race.

Self identification vs Racial Coding

Racially coding host photographs and comparing the results to self-identified race information that Americans provided when completing the census was the only method available in order to complete the research.

While it is likely that there may be some inbuilt error in this approach, the disparities found, 500% on average, overwhelm any errors between self and image coding.

Using computer software to racially identify hosts is inaccurate

Hosts were racially coded using Face++, a facial detection and recognition software toolkit that uses machine learning to racially identify faces in photographs.

The results of the Face++ racial detection was calibrated using a similar study, kindly provided by researchers at Harvard Business School, which employed Face++ racial coding of Airbnb host photographs alongside humans racially coding the same photographs.

* Note this explanation was provided in the Report, however Airbnb made these series of criticisms without even reading the report. (They decided to publish their criticism based only on a draft of the Executive Summary.)

Racial Profiling

Peter Schotenfels, the Airbnb Press Secretary of New York City at the time, said that Inside Airbnb was "Racial Profiling" Airbnb hosts in its research.

While any accusation of Racial Profiling should be taken seriously, it's highly inappropriate and problematic when used by the (white) press secretary of a $30 Billion corporation about research that discovers a disparity in the use of their platform which overwhelmingly benefits white residents.

The discussion of race, including patterns correlated with race and practices that distinctively harm people of certain races, is valid research and not “racial profiling.”

Lacks Control Group

The research question being examined in the Faces Of report was "Who uses and benefits from Airbnb in a Black neighborhood?", and Inside Airbnb uses a quantitative study to analyse the question.

The nature of the question does not call for a control group, nor would one even be possible.

Fails to address wide disparities between neighborhoods analyzed

The top 18 Black neighbourhoods ALL exhibited consistent results, namely that the majority of Airbnb hosts were white (despite being majority Black neighborhoods).

The only Black neighborhoods that produced inconsistent results were a small number of outlier neighbourhoods with a VERY LOW number of Airbnb listings.

While some of Airbnb's criticisms raise valid questions, others are irrelevant, or clearly designed to discredit and silence research into the damaging effects of Airbnb's business model.

Independent Response to Airbnb's Criticism

Benjamin Edelman, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, is one of the most prominent researchers cited in the debate about racism on Airbnb. He provided the response below when contacted by a journalist about Airbnb's criticism of the "Faces of" research. Professor Edelman kindly agreed for this response to be included here.

I have read Airbnb’s critiques of the methodology used in Inside Airbnb's Faces of New York report by Murray Cox.

That the study was not peer-reviewed is neither here nor there. How many of Airbnb’s policy papers have been peer reviewed? We might look, meanwhile, at Airbnb’s provision of data to government regulators (most notably, in NYC) that was at best misleading and arguably intentionally false.

The use of photos is the best possible method to assess host race. I’m familiar with this method and its limitations. Photos are not perfect. But they’re effective and suitable for purpose.

I am unmoved. Murray did good work, using best-in-class research methods, and Airbnb’s critiques don’t sway me from that view.

I think highly of the work and hope Airbnb’s critique won’t distract readers from his substantive contributions."

Professor Benjamin Edelman, PhD, Harvard Business School

Community Reaction

In addition to academic supporters, the research that Inside Airbnb provides is used by housing and tenant advocates, neighborhoods associations, and elected representatives who resist the damage that Airbnb.

Support for the research and concern about the findings were detailed in the Press Release for the original report.

In conclusion

Inside Airbnb's data and research into the negative impact of Airbnb on housing affordability in cities around the world is now being confirmed in study after study.

Airbnb use in racially segregated and gentrifying neighborhoods, such as in New York City, increases housing displacement amongst Residents of Color while overwhelmingly benefitting white, new residents. Airbnb is the new gentrifier.