I literally could not believe the words. These were my friends. Good friends. Not racist people… Or, so I thought.
“I’m not racist, but I don’t really want to rent my home to Hispanics.”
How could they say this? The older man that said this is African American and knows first-hand what discrimination feels like. In my mind, he is a hero that lived through one of the toughest and darkest times in our country’s history and prevailed to be a successful black businessman against all odds. I had always thought of him as a great warrior in the fight against racism. His words couldn’t be true.
At this point, I wish I could tell you that I had the courage to stand up against the racism. That is not true. I am embarrassed to say that I sat there in shock and did not say a word.
In a recent study conducted at Brigham Young University, Howard J. Ross, the lead researcher, renowned author of Everyday Bias, and an economics professor at BYU said, “Human beings are consistently, routinely and profoundly biased.” He went on to say, “This is one of the most insidious things about bias. People may absorb these things without knowing them.”
These are profound words. We likely do not realize our own biases. However, we police ourselves and ignorantly walk around assuming that we are not biased or racist. These biases are moral blind spots and are a reality whether or not we acknowledge them. Unless we confront this ugly truth, we will never make progress.
OK, what does this have to do with vacation rentals? Our biases as individual people groups and a collective industry are resulting in discrimination (intentional and unintentional) against people that are different than ourselves.
Wil Reynolds, a friend of mine and successful businessman, is African American. Our company has been a client of his digital advertising agency. I can personally attest that Wil’s character and integrity are impeccable – even when it was not easy. I know this man and can confidently tell you that he and his family are ideal renters.
Wil recently wrote an article about how he was discriminated against while trying to book an airbnb. The headline of his post grabbed my attention and sums up a huge issue we are facing as an industry:
“No matter how much success you have you’re still a scary black man to some people.”
If you work in the vacation rental industry, do yourself a favor and read the article. This stuff is real and not three degrees of separation removed. One degree. It happened to someone I know and respect. The host literally agreed to rent to Wil’s wife (she’s white) and not to him.
I believe the situations above, which are more common than you may realize, highlight the need for automatic bookings and approval in the vacation rental industry. However, many property managers are vehemently opposed to this idea.
These property owners and managers believe that without the manual ‘vetting’ and approving of guests, that they will lose control of their units. Due to what they believe is an impeccable ability to sniff out a ‘problem guest,’ they cannot stand the idea of a review system or machine learning model qualifying the guest.
There is a major flaw with this theory. That gut feeling we get when we evaluate a guest – is it accurate? Is it based on our bias? More importantly, is it even possible to know?
In employment law, there is a legal doctrine known as Disparate Impact Discrimination. The basic idea is that discrimination can unintentionally occur. A policy that at face-value appears to be neutral can accidentally discriminate against a protected people class.
For example, if your company uses a certain test to qualify applicants and minority applicants are disproportionately impacted, that is Disparate Impact Discrimination. The court system will not care that the intent of the test was to qualify applicants. Instead, it will focus on the unintentional discrimination.
What in the world does Disparate Impact Discrimination have to do with vacation rentals?
Simple. Some of us still choose to manually approve each guest after ‘vetting’ or ‘qualifying’ the guest. When we do this, we may unintentionally discriminate against a guest. I am not a lawyer, but I do believe racism (including unintentional) will prove to be a legal and PR issue for our industry in the near term.
We must put our heads together and ensure that both unintentional and intentional racism and discrimination are fiercely opposed within our industry.
About David Angotti
David Angotti is a serial entrepreneur who founded and exited an EdTech startup, consulted with Fortune 100 brands, wrote for Search Engine Journal, and recently sold one of the fastest growing property management brands in the country.
He is currently laser-focused on developing SmokyMountains.com into the premier niche listing site in the country. David’s primary strengths are business development, branding, high-level marketing, search engine optimization and public relations. In addition to his business background, he was a commercial pilot for NetJets and is certified to fly the fastest passenger jet in the world.
I discriminate for only two reasons..1) that your money is not GREEN…I could care less what your color is…just your money and 2) that you take proper care of my property. Comply with those two things and I will rent to the Devil himself!
I absolutely agree that this is an issue which will have ramifications for our industry but I am not sure that the solution should be left to the legal system. Racism is horrible but it exists and while much progress has been made it is still up against the lizard brain, fear of the unknown and/or whatever else it is that makes people discriminate, consciously or unconsciously. I think it is fair to say that we do not know ourselves half as well as we would like to. I admire the honesty of owning up to your own embarrassed admission of silence regarding your African-American friend’s attitude.
While the legal system has an important role to play, I think it fair to say that is a legal industry too where chasing litigation has become the norm. I don’t think there is any question that every human discriminates, mostly unconsciously just like we drive a car or walk – mostly unconsciously. I am not sure that focusing on unintentional discrimination (presumably with punishment as the deterrent) will do anything other than create sullen resentment which will find outlet in more destructive ways. The only thing that can be done is to point out discrimination and go elsewhere.
Why was the AirBnB host picture blocked out in the Will Renold’s Medium post? Presumably because Will Reynolds feared being accused of smearing that host. The legal industry has a lot to answer for because it is not providing any answers or helping to expose the truth. One side is discriminating but the legal profession will go after the accuser for slander. Of course, we all know the truth – even if it is very hard to prove. Will Renolds was discriminated against. We believe that is wrong but we do not really know the other truth. That is, what was going on in the host’s mind when she declined the booking? What was the underlying fear about?
Regarding holiday homes, I think that automatic booking and approval will change the very nature of the business. Although it has become a mass phenomenon because of the so-called sharing economy, at the granular level, the difference between running hotel accommodation and VR accommodation is huge. A hotel room is generally not owned by an individual. A house is. Owners care very much about their holiday homes because they are usually their largest investment, quite apart from any emotional attachment. That owner has chosen the furniture and the decor, planted the garden and probably mows the lawn too. Not all owners are absent owners relying on a property management company. Automatic approval will be abused. I do not think that any algorithm will be able to discriminate any better than a human.
Discriminating is something that we humans are quite good at. It helps us to survive in business.
I run a niche regional listing website in North Queensland and my owners all manage their own homes. They are still finding out about the pitfalls of instant booking. While I admit that personal vetting of potential guests has its limitations, we have, after a few bad experiences become much better at identifying customers who want to use a home as a venue for a party, a wedding or some gathering. Hint: enquiries from locals or all adult groups below the age of 30 or so are a warning signal. We do not automatically decline but we spell out our rules of engagement in no uncertain terms.
Some owners are quite anxious about renting to families with small children. This is certainly discrimination but any parent will know that if you let children wander around with an ice-cream in their hands, it tends to end up on all the soft furnishings. If it is not washed out immediately, a mould stain will form in a few days which cannot be removed.
Should an owner be entitled to decide who stays in her house? The obvious answer is – Yes. But that runs up against discrimination. The law already has a pretty good set of rules about discrimination but enforcing them is much harder.There is a lot more to the question of discrimination than just racial discrimination. That is what being human is all about. I think that is what differentiated the holiday home industry from the hotel industry. It really is down at the human level or being like a local. Rushing into automation may not be the best answer.
Thank you for highlighting an important issue.