VUB study reveals ethnic discrimination on Airbnb

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Chart 1. Percentages of acceptance of the tourists’reservation request
Chart 1. Percentages of acceptance of the tourists’reservation request

Tourists with Moroccan names are more likely to be refused a reservation

Tourists with Moroccan-sounding names experience structural discrimination on Airbnb. This is the result uncovered by a new study conducted by Professor Pieter-Paul Verhaeghe and his team at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. For their research, the sociologists conducted 1,043 mail tests on Airbnb during the summer of 2021. Although Airbnb strongly condemns racism, the results show that the platform’s anti-discrimination policy does not address the problem.

Practical tests on Airbnb

Professor Verhaeghe had already demonstrated that ethnic discrimination existed in the traditional rental housing market in Belgium. Yet Airbnb had long remained in the blind spot.Even on a global scale, there are only a handful of studies on the issue and these are rarely recent. The researchers therefore conducted correspondence tests on Airbnb.

The correspondence tests are written versions of the practical tests, where fictitious candidates contact a landlord to ask him to rent his accommodation. Specifically, the researchers asked fictitious domestic tourists to contact 1,043 hosts via the Airbnb platform for homes located in the Brussels Capital Region. Participants asked at the beginning of the summer vacations if they could book the Airbnb accommodation for a weekend in Brussels in September. The fictitious tourists all had a similar profile and only the ethnic origin of their names distinguished them. They had Belgian, Moroccan or Polish sounding names.

Stronger discrimination by professional hosts

The tests showed that, structurally, tourists with Moroccan names were more often refused the reservation of the Airbnb home than tourists with Belgian names. While tourists with a Belgian name received a positive response in half of the cases, this rate was only 44% for tourists with a Moroccan name. Discrimination is only rampant among the so-called ’professional’ Airbnb hosts, says Professor Verhaeghe. For them, the difference in positive reaction can reach 15% (see graph 1). Professional hosts are hosts who offer two or more homes or a single home for more than 120 days per year on Airbnb. Among non-professional hosts, the researchers found no discrimination. These are private renters who, in the original spirit of Airbnb, offer their own homes for rent sporadically (max. 120 days). Finally, tourists with Polish names were not discriminated against.

’ We assume that private hosts in Brussels are much more open to diversity than professional hosts. People who are more closed to diversity will be less likely to rent out their own homes to tourists on Airbnb ’, explain Professor Pieter-Paul Verhaeghe and his colleague Billie Martiniello. ’ For professional hosts, it’s quite different. It’s not their own home, which means they have less contact with tourists. ’

Instant reservation function

Since 2016, Airbnb has adopted an anti-discrimination policy on its platform. One of the measures implemented is the ’instant booking’ feature. Hosts can choose to activate this feature, which automatically confirms booking requests. The VUB study shows that the instant booking function works perfectly: no discrimination was found among the hosts who activated it. Unfortunately, activation is voluntary. The researchers therefore also advocate that Airbnb should make the instant booking feature mandatory for all hosts.