When disability rights lawyer Haben Girma, who is blind and deaf, booked an apartment in London via Airbnb last month, she says the host cancelled her reservation after she disclosed that her guide dog would be joining her.
Prior to the cancellation, Girma and the host, Kirk Truman, had a lengthy exchange over the course of about a week-and-a-half in which Girma explained her situation, as well as educated the host about Airbnb's non-discrimination policy that protects both her and her guide dog, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Equality Act in the U.K., she told TechCrunch.
Despite this discussion, which TechCrunch has read and reviewed, Truman continued to express concern, saying, "I think my freeholder would be really unhappy with me if he found out that I had somebody stay in the flat with a dog/guide dog."
The discussion continued, with Truman saying that "it should all be fine." In the same message, he added that, had he "known when you first requested to book about you bringing your guide dog, I would've spoken to you about all we've discussed before proceeding with the booking."
But ultimately, a couple of weeks later, Truman canceled Girma's reservation. He justified the cancellation by saying the property would be undergoing some work during her scheduled stay, according to the conversation reviewed by TechCrunch. However, Girma says when her friend tried to book the same dates at that property five days later, Truman accepted the reservation.
When reached for comment about why Truman accepted her friend's reservation for those same dates, Truman told TechCrunch via email his property has a leak and that the repairs are supposed to happen this coming weekend (November 23-24), which is when Girma was originally scheduled to stay at his flat.
"These dates were changed to this week by the contractor but then again changed to this coming weekend and are likely to be delayed into next week," Truman said. "I should also add, that I also had to cancel another booking due to the issues with the leak as it happened again quite recently."
It was when Girma found out Truman accepted her friend's reservation for the same dates that she reached out to Airbnb. The company expressed remorse and told Girma that it would review the situation to determine if Truman deserved a warning, account suspension or permanent removal from the platform.
"For privacy reasons we can't share what will happen after the review, but we want you to know that we are committed to fighting discrimination and ensuring that the Airbnb community is open and accessible to everyone," an Airbnb customer service representative named Matt wrote to her in a message reviewed by TechCrunch.
But Girma took issue with the fact that Airbnb said it would keep the resolution of the review process quiet.
"Telling victims of discrimination that the result of the review process is private contributes to guests feeling like the platform is not safe," Girma told TechCrunch via email. "We want to know if the company decides to protect discriminatory hosts. The company needs to be transparent with victims of discrimination."
"I'm interested in whether or not Airbnb will take action, and I'm deeply disappointed that the company has chosen not to tell me what will be done in this incident," Girma wrote to Airbnb.
In response, Airbnb reiterated that it would not disclose what actions it took with Truman. About one week later, however, Airbnb changed its course and let her know that the company took the route of host education. Additionally, Airbnb said Truman was now aware that future violations could result in his removal from the Airbnb platform.
But Girma said she had already gone out of her way to educate the host about Airbnb's policy, as well as the ADA and the U.K.'s Equality Act.
"He knew it would be against your policy, and still canceled my reservation," Girma wrote to Airbnb. "He claimed it was because the flat would have construction during my dates. My nondisabled friend then applied to stay at the flat for the exact same dates, and Kirk immediately accepted my friend's reservation. All of this is in the records I sent to you."
Girma then expressed dismay that Airbnb had chosen not to remove Truman and asked the company to reconsider. Shortly after sending that message, Girma got in touch with TechCrunch.
Following an inquiry from TechCrunch, Airbnb said it would suspend Truman for 30 days:
"To use our platform, Airbnb community members must commit to treat all fellow members of this community, regardless of disability, race, religion, national origin, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or age, with respect, and without judgment or bias. We have suspended this host and sincerely thank Haben both for reporting this incident and for her past work to help Airbnb's team better serve the disability community."
In determining what action to take, Airbnb concluded that what Truman did fell into the category of discriminatory impact versus discriminatory intent. So, if a host calls the guest the N-word, that's discriminatory intent and impact, which would result in immediate removal from the platform. Discriminatory impact, according to Airbnb, is how it sees this situation between Girma and the host. Airbnb's theory is that Truman is not irredeemable and can learn from this situation. And, if he doesn't, then he may be removed entirely.
"I understand the implication yes, though this was not why Haben's booking was cancelled in the first place," Truman told TechCrunch. "I have written to Airbnb to appeal against this decision as I feel there appears to have been a misunderstanding."
Airbnb has since notified Girma of the resolution, which entails the aforementioned 30-day suspension, as well as a re-education of its policies. However, she says this is a "gentle" punishment.
"Responding to violations by educating hosts again and again creates a culture where hosts know they can get away with discrimination," Girma said. "And if they are extremely unlucky the worst that will happen is a thirty-day suspension."
Even more alarming, Girma said, is that Airbnb told her the company has instructed Truman that any similar violation "may result" in his removal.
"Airbnb cannot even commit to removing Kirk if he does this again," she said. "I'm deeply concerned about the lack of enforcement."
Airbnb has since offered Girma money to cover her costs of seeking accommodation elsewhere, but she says she does not plan to accept any compensation.
What Girma would prefer, she told TechCrunch, is for Airbnb to commit to making the complaint process transparent to victims, strictly enforce the accessibility policy and remove hosts who violate it.
"The company has thousands and thousands of hosts; why is Airbnb so intent on protecting a host that knowingly violated policies and discriminated against a disabled guest?" Girma wondered. "Airbnb has a systemic enforcement problem. Knowingly violating Airbnb policy apparently won’t even get hosts removed from the platform. Airbnb policy is to not tell victims of discrimination the results of complaint reviews. How will guests ever feel safe using Airbnb when we know hosts that violate Airbnb’s own policies stay on the platform?"
Airbnb has long faced issues with discrimination. In 2016, the company announced product and policy changes aimed at eradicating racist behavior. That included a new non-discrimination policy and a mandatory community commitment to treat fellow platform members with respect and without judgment and bias.
It's worth noting Airbnb has also made some positive changes on the accessibility front. Last March, it added accessibility filters to make it easier for people with disabilities to find accessible travel accommodations, such as places with step-free entry and entryways that are wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair.
But despite Airbnb's attempts to educate hosts and create a platform that fosters inclusivity, it's clear that not all hosts are on board, which is still resulting in discrimination. If you've experienced discrimination on Airbnb, please get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.