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Whoa, Do Asian Airbnb Hosts in Oakland Really Earn Less Than White Hosts?

Racism remains a possibility, but it’s too soon to say for sure.


For all of Airbnb’s assurances that it’s here for you, middle class, really, a study conducted by Harvard students suggests that Asian hosts in the East Bay aren’t bringing in the same income on comparable rentals as their white counterparts. The research paper, published this fall by Harvard’s Journal of Technology Science, suggests that Asian hosts in Oakland and Berkeley earn about 20 percent less per week, or $90, than white hosts in the same neighborhoods. Over the lifetime of a short-term rental, that difference adds up to big bucks—up to $4,680 per year, if it’s a really active rental.

The $90 figure applies to a one-bedroom rented out by one person. For two-bedroom listings rented by a single person, that difference rises to about $145, according to the predictive model devised by the paper's authors. 

What accounts for the difference? The study doesn’t attempt to answer that question, but the students hazard a few guesses. “Asians could have found it difficult to get bookings when they offered rental prices comparable to those offered by whites,” authors David Wang, Stephen Xi, and John Gilheany write. “Alternatively, Asians might offer lower prices to increase the number of booked nights or whites may increase rental prices to reduce the number of bookings.”  

The study is small, covering just 101 hosts: 75 white and 26 Asian. Airbnb doesn’t classify its hosts according to race, of course, so the students went by profile picture alone. The data comes from a scrape performed on Airbnb on April 23, 2015. 

NPR got ahold of some of the hosts whose profiles were part of the study to ask if they thought race played a role in their pricing strategies. Most people said no, and one host asked not to be quoted, saying, “I never talk about race.”

One thing we don't know: how much the hosts pay in rent, or what their monthly expenses even are. Could the price differences somehow have their root in lower overall costs that the hosts may be trying to recoup? With just 26 Asian hosts contributing data, a few outliers could potentially exaggerate whatever differences are at work in this small slice of the East Bay.

The study’s narrow scope makes it hard to draw any definitive conclusions—the authors acknowledge that more research is needed—but it does have company. In 2012, a Harvard Business School paper found that non-black Airbnb hosts in New York were charging about 12 percent more than their black counterparts were, as Fast Company notes. That study pointed to the role of reviews—important for building trust between strangers—in making discrimination possible. We’re fine to buy used ski equipment and Chubbies from a faceless eBay seller, but when it comes to where we sleep at night, would we be able to make that call without seeing the face of the real person we’re trusting with our safety and well-being? 

If discrimination truly is at work here, and not some more benign factor, home-sharing platforms that want to ensure a level playing field for their hosts might want to step in with some corrective measures. But first, some real data would be handy. How ’bout it, Airbnb? If you want to be a truly equal-opportunity home-sharing platform, why not put some of that dough into researching how well your hosts are faring in this imperfect marketplace?


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