Who’s Protecting Airbnb’s Guests from Discrimination?

03/15/2017 09:46 am ET Updated Mar 15, 2017

The debate over Airbnb in Miami and Miami Beach is getting hotter by the day between the $30 billion short-term rental company and city officials, especially the mayors, who are showing a rare instance of bi-partisanship. Executives from Airbnb may wear t-shirts and run a hip, online company in the shared economy, but their business tactics increasingly resemble the aggressive and entitled nature of Wall Street’s toughest players. And by operating as secretly as they do, the company faces a growing number of civil liberties complaints.

Airbnb is determined to exert its will whether a community wants it around or not. The company has shown little respect for established laws, zoning and regulations in municipalities and an unwillingness to compete on a level playing field with legal hotels. In San Francisco, for example, they passed a bill to their liking in the city council after a hyper-aggressive lobbying campaign, but then sued the city because they didn’t want their own tailor-made bill enforced.

A lot of time, the debate over Airbnb is about taxes, and rightfully so, since the rest of us are paying our fair share. But the conversation must not end there. We should never ignore bad behavior from operators not only in the area of taxes but in terms of civil rights laws, health and safety laws, and the ADA. So why should local and state governments cave to lobbying pressure from Airbnb on these issues? Why are we allowing Airbnb and its operators to get away with not being held to the same standards as other companies? Why are operators allowed to simply ignore a law like the Americans with Disabilities Act?

Let’s be clear, there are plenty of law-abiding short-term rental hosts out there, good people who are welcoming a wide aray of diverse individuals into their homes. I have nothing against individual home owners or renters who use the Airbnb platform to do short term rentals to other people- that is definitely not the problem. But the message also should be clear to anyone breaking the law, dodging rules, and avoiding codes—you have a responsibility to operate under the same laws as hotels operate under.

The problem is that Airbnb has become a huge powerful company, aggressively trying to create a rule-free business environment for themselves, and they are happy to cut deals with big apartment building owners to create illegal hotels. Unfortunately, history shows us how few big companies, when left to their own devices, play fair at overseeing themselves. The company is getting a huge percentage of its revenue from commercial operators, and it should be treated the way every other big business is treated. No rigged deals or tilted playing fields for Airbnb.

Airbnb will argue their case - We have an anti-discrimination policy, they will say, and that is true. “We are all committed to doing everything we can to help eliminate all forms of unlawful bias, discrimination and intolerance from our platform.” But Airbnb’s unwillingness to strictly enforce “illegal hotels” operating on its site makes it very hard to believe they are doing anything serious to prevent hosts from discriminating based on race, color, religion, sex or physical ability. This is the same company that attempted to block a Harvard researcher from investigating discriminatory practices on the site. Just look at the many stories online about people being discriminated against by hosts.

Forcing all short-term rental sites to register hosts with the state or a city would help prevent discriminatory practices. The same has been true for hotels and bed & breakfasts that are only allowed to maintain operating licenses by proving civil liberties and disability laws have been followed.

Currently, municipalities do not have the capability of tracking the number of Airbnb hosts with accuracy or violations by operators because the company is so secretive about its revenue generating users. Renters are trained to not open the door for code enforcement and advised to claim they’re “a guest of the owner” to dodge the rules of home owner’s associations. If Airbnb won’t come clean about who’s operating on the site and where, how can we expect them to be honest about oversite regarding discriminatory practices or even public safety?

While elected officials are busy attempting to hold Airbnb accountable to taxes, they should be equally concerned about holding the company and its operators accountable to protecting the rights of all people, no matter the color of their skin or their physical abilities.

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