CA to begin anti-discrimination testing of Airbnb hosts

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State regulators plan soon to test hosts on Airbnb to prevent discriminatory practices, picking audit targets using information provided by the online homesharing platform.

The tests follow the state’s decision last week to fine an Airbnb host in Big Bear for canceling the reservation of a guest because she is Asian-American. But regulators at the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing had been discussing auditing hosts even before the fine.

The planned audits are part of a months-long investigation into complaints of discrimination on the online platform, said Jon Ichinaga, the department’s chief counsel.

Ichinaga said hosts accused of discrimination by a guest will be contacted by staff posing as a white guest trying to book on the same dates. If the host accepts the "white" guest who is identical to the rejected guest in every way but race, regulators can infer discrimination and go after offenders, he said.

“We’re going to be bringing some cases, so people will know that if you’re doing it and you get caught, there’s going to be a price to pay,” Ichinaga said.

Fair housing testing is regularly performed on landlords in the long-term rental market but California’s attempt to audit short-term rental hosts is believed to be the first among the states.

Airbnb has faced criticism in the past that it’s not done enough to police bias by hosts, who are given the option to screen their guests. A 2015 Harvard study found that guests with “distinctively African-American names” are 16 percent less likely to secure a booking compared to guests presumed to be white.

The report helped spur California regulators to investigate Airbnb, and led the company to voluntarily commit to an agreement that has the state periodically subpoenaing the names of hosts accused of discrimination.

Connie Llanos, Airbnb deputy policy manager, said the company has conducted internal scrutiny as well, hiring the civil rights advocate Laura Murphy and former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to review its policies.   

“Airbnb has said time and time again, that there is no room on our platform for discrimination,” Lllanos said.

She said in addition to its work with California regulators, the company is requiring hosts and guests pledge to treat others on the platform with respect. It is also providing 24-7 booking assistance for guests who feel that they’ve been denied housing on Airbnb because of discrimination.

The platform is also promoting a feature called Instant Book, which allows guests to reserve a room without prior screening by the host.

“We think this is really useful way also in eliminating the opportunities for biases to take place,” Llanos said.

Ichinaga said regulators found in their investigation of Airbnb that staff have been cooperative and taking reports of discrimination “seriously.” The company advises guests filing complaints that they can also contact the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

Ichinaga said in addition to choosing audit subjects based on complaints, regulators may also do randomized testing of hosts.

Penalties for discrimination will vary — emotional distress is a consideration — but will carry a minimum fine of $4,000 under California’s civil rights laws, Ichinaga said.

In the Big Bear case, the host, Tami Baker, was ordered to pay guest Dyan Suh $5,000 and take a college-level course in Asian-American studies.  Airbnb has banned Baker from hosting on the site.

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