This week, the anti-home sharing website InsideAirbnb released an outrageous—and outrageously shoddy—new report that made a series of sweeping conclusions about the nature of the Airbnb host community in historically Black neighborhoods in New York City, asserting that Airbnb is promoting “racial gentrification.”
Unfortunately, the report isn’t worth the digital ink it is printed on. Rather, it uses a long-discredited methodology akin to racial profiling. Furthermore, this so-called study lacks the control group necessary in any legitimate study, relies on the false assumption that the racial demographics of a particular community’s resident population match the racial demographics of that community’s homeowner population, and fails to address wide disparities between neighborhoods analyzed.
Each of these flaws is examined further, below.
Airbnb does not ask hosts or guests for information related to their racial identity. As a result, the authors of this report attempted to determine the race of individual hosts by using suspect technology to rifle through Airbnb users’ profile photos. This is not only an offensive way to classify individuals, it’s also replete with flaws.
Race is a continuum, not a dichotomy. And yet, this report only compares two races: Black and White, ignoring the diverse people who call New York City home, including the nearly 285,000 New Yorkers who identify as more than one race. Indeed, since 1970, the Census Bureau has asked Americans to “self-identify” on the federal census, acknowledging that race is not as simple as a photograph.
The methodology does not address Latinos who identify as Black, Whites who identify as Latino, or any other combination, let alone how to categorize a host that is a member of a multiracial couple whose spouse/partner is not pictured on Airbnb.
The bottom line is that the only way to effectively determine race is to have self-identification data from the hosts—and InsideAirbnb doesn’t have it.
Furthermore, while the author uses self-identification data from the Census to identify the race of residents, racial information for Airbnb hosts is not derived from self-identification. As a result, the comparisons between residents and hosts are fundamentally flawed.
One of the first lessons of Research 101 is that any legitimate study has to have an experimental group and a control group to measure against. However, this study has no control group. Instead, even setting aside the concerns raised in #1 above, the author only analyzes disparities between residents and Airbnb hosts in Black neighborhoods. Without performing a similar analysis in White neighborhoods, they cannot rule out alternative explanations for the disparity.
It is possible, for instance, that a disproportionate share of Airbnb hosts are White because White New Yorkers are significantly more likely than Black or Hispanic New Yorkers to own their homes (42 percent of Non-Hispanic White New Yorkers own their homes, only 27 percent of Black New Yorkers and 15 percent of Hispanic households own theirs).
This leads us to another fundamental flaw in this report: the reliance on the demographic profile of residents, but not the demographic profile of homeowners. In many situations, renters are forbidden― either by the Multiple Dwelling Law or by the terms of their lease― to rent out their homes on a short-term basis. This includes all rent-stabilized tenants, as well as tenants in public housing or who use federal or local vouchers to pay rent. These latter groups are disproportionately people of color. In fact, as of January 1, 2015, over 90 percent of NYCHA’s population identified as Black or Hispanic.
It could be the case that the majority of the residents in at least some of these Black neighborhoods are renters. If so, that begs the question of whether the landlords/owners are also Black, or whether they are of a different race. The report fails to grapple with these facts, even though they could have major bearing on the demographics of the Airbnb host population.
Lastly, there is wide and unexplained variability within the Black neighborhoods studied. Specifically, the percentage of Black host listings ranges from 3.9% in Fort Greene to 85.5% in Canarsie. Likewise, the percentage of White host listings ranges from 9.7% in Canarsie to 92% in Fort Greene. No explanation is offered for these wildly varying results.
The report uses this flawed methodology to make the sweeping claim that Airbnb is a “racial gentrification tool.” Not only does the report fail to make any viable causal link between home sharing and changing demographics, but it ignores the fact that Black New Yorkers have faced considerable pressures for decades prior to Airbnb even entering the New York market.
Between 2000 and 2004, the City lost over 30,000 African-American residents, the first decline since the Draft Riots during the Civil War. In fact, the share of the NYC population identifying as African-American declined 11 percent between 1990-2010, the continuation of a national “reverse migration” that began around 1970.
Far from being an engine of gentrification, home sharing is helping tens of thousands of families― including thousands in communities of color― with the extra money to make ends meet. According to Airbnb’s latest host survey, 79 percent of NYC hosts report that home sharing allowed them to stay in their homes, with nearly one-third saying that the extra income helped them avoid eviction.
The fact that this report doesn’t bother to grapple with these facts can only make one wonder whether its source― who has consistently earned the praise of the hotel industry for his “investigative” efforts into Airbnb― is truly the type of impartial, professional researcher who can be trusted to draw informed, substantiated conclusions about home sharing in New York City.
Hon. Michael Nutter
Former Mayor of Philadelphia