Distraction Free Reading

Airbnb’s Location Ratings as Anti-Black Spatial Disinvestment in Washington D.C.

In 2016, Airbnb host Synta Keeling appeared on NPR’s Hidden Brain to share her story of hosting as a Black woman living east of the Anacostia River. She recounts what a white male guest told her after a day out in D.C., “I was the only white person on the bus, and it was all these black people. And I asked myself, were they going to hurt me? Am I unsafe? And then I realized they weren’t hurting me and nothing was going to happen to me. Like, they were just sitting there normal.” [1]

While Keeling’s guest recognized the horridness of what he was saying, other hosts east of the river faced the brunt of anti-Black discrimination. Non-Black guests expressed their bias against the predominantly Black, working-class people in this part of D.C. through their in-app ratings of their trip. Ratings are determined through a mix of qualitative measures including listing accuracy, host communication, and cleanliness. These ratings impact how likely a host will come up in future Airbnb searches. Airbnb hosts rely on their positive rating to gain the trust of prospective guests and earn an income. During my dissertation fieldwork in 2019 and 2020, many hosts told me about how Airbnb’s Location Rating acted as a way for guests to communicate their racial bias against the area without significant push back from Airbnb. I argue that Airbnb’s Location Rating serves as an instance of what Ruha Benjamin calls The New Jim Code: “The employment of new technologies that reflect and reproduce existing inequities but that are promoted and perceived as more objective or progressive than the discriminatory systems of a previous era.”[2] Airbnb’s Location Rating not only acts as a vector for discriminatory spatialization but mirrors other forms of racialized disinvestment in the area.

Hosting in D.C.’s Wards 7 and 8

Home to historical and contemporary Black working-class life in the nation’s capital, Washington D.C.’s 7th and 8th Wards are located across the Anacostia River. Airbnb stays in Ward 7 and 8 make up 7% of total active listings in D.C. [3] These listings generated $3.75 million in extra income for residents between June 1, 2017 and May 31, 2018, or about $4,712 a year per host. [4] Additionally, hosts I spoke to said that these visits were an important injection of tourist dollars into an area that otherwise has no hotel industry.

Hosting on Airbnb wasn’t uniformly positive for hosts east of the river. [5] During my fieldwork, I met with several hosts who hosted guests who were unkind in their assessment of the area. Anita, a Black host, told me about how her brother hosted a tall white man who had come to the area for a Congressional internship. The guests’ parents had booked the stay and gave the host a low rating. When the host asked why they gave a low Location Rating despite all the proper information being in the listing, the guests’ parents explained that the intern had checked the location on his phone and it said it was Anacostia. After he went to the Congressional office and his co-workers asked him where he was staying, he said Anacostia. His white co-workers told him the area was unsafe. Anita expressed frustration over her brother’s experience, “As opposed to saying or refuting it, he just doubled down on it. And that at times he felt unsafe. But it’s just sort of like, you felt unsafe but when you looked around you all you saw were Black people who were working-class. So what’s that say about you.” The guests’ parents tried to deflect the charge of racism by saying that they lived in a majority Black city. Anita replied with a laugh, “I’m sure you live in the majority-white side. I have this problem with people here and the city is still 65% African-American. Just because they live in D.C. doesn’t mean they’re any less racist. Trump lives here, that has not improved him.”

Jasmine, a Black host, told me a story about her friend Sophie, a white host in the area. She explained that a white woman booked a stay at Sophie’s home. Sophie, who didn’t put her picture on her profile due to experiences of sexual harassment, received a message from the guest after she arrived in downtown historic Anacostia. The guest said, “I don’t feel safe here as a white woman.” Sophie quickly called her out on her racism, “Oh that’s interesting because I’m a white woman and I felt perfectly fine here.” Jasmine explained, “You kind of have to leverage who you are to call people out on their nonsense.”

Both these guests marked their hosts’ rating down through Airbnb’s Location Rating, thereby bringing the hosts’ overall rating down and damaging their ability to recruit guests in the future. Though hosts impressed upon me that they also had many guests who didn’t mark them down, the problem of the Location Rating reoccurred often enough that it remained salient.

Four houses at 13th Street and W Street, SE in the Anacostia Historic District. The four houses are yellow, green, brown/orange, and white. The houses have porches.

Four houses at 13th Street and W Street, SE in the Anacostia Historic District. This file is made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

Airbnb’s Location Rating as a Tool for Discriminatory Spatialization

Airbnb is one of the many platform corporations that use star ratings to rate interactions between users. Supplemented by written reviews, star ratings become a way for guests and hosts to rank their experiences with one another. The Location Rating is described as follows on Airbnb’s website: “Location. How did guests feel about the neighborhood? This may mean that there’s an accurate description for proximity and access to transportation, shopping centers, city center, etc., and a description that includes special considerations, like noise, and family safety.” [6]

The flexibility of what “special considerations” and “safety” mean creates the conditions for the Location Rating to work as a tool for racial bias. Guests’ feelings of being “unsafe” were translated into lower ratings for hosts, sometimes as low as 2- or 3-stars out of 5. This in turn lowered the overall rating, which had several effects on hosts. First, the lowered rating kept hosts from attaining Superhost status — which required an overall rating of 4.8 out of 5. [7] This status marks hosts as reputable vendors in the Airbnb system, moves them up in Airbnb searches, and allows them to charge more for their listings. A lowered rating and the loss of the Superhost status pushes hosts to lower their prices and makes it harder to compete with Superhosts who do not get marked down due to racial bias in other parts of the District.

Second, the lower rating impacts how Ward 7 and 8 hosts show up in searches on the Airbnb app and website. At the time of writing, upon searching Airbnb for Superhost listings or all listings in Washington D.C., nothing pops up in these areas. Users must manually zoom into the area to see any listings whatsoever. [8]

Finally, beyond technological ramifications, the lower ratings reinscribe racialized stereotypes of both Wards. According to the D.C. Policy Center, these wards experience persistent poor health, high rates of poverty, low educational attainment, and high rates of incarceration. [9] These inequities are due to decades of job and housing discrimination, an increased carceral apparatus in the Wards, government disinvestment in the area, and urban development policies that prioritize high-income residents and displace D.C.’s Black working-class population. [10] Disinvestment came with racial stereotypes of the area that were actively reinforced by the racist Location Ratings — visions of the area as riddled with crimes, unsafe, and dangerous for visitors.

The combinations of these effects evidenced how Location Ratings served as a tool for discriminatory spatialization. Though not necessarily designed as such or used exclusively to reinscribe racist perceptions of Ward 7 and 8, Location Ratings nonetheless served to hide Black-hosted rentals from the Airbnb map, impacted hosts’ ability to earn an income, and forced hosts to contend with highly skewed racialized visions of their homes. The Airbnb Location Rating acted as “a permanent battleground for those who wish to reinforce or challenge hierarchies” of race — a form of New Jim Code. [11] Regardless of the designer’s intentionality, the Location Rating devalued Black space through a system that allowed anti-Black racial biases to go unchecked.

Towards Black Platform Geographies

Hosts weren’t simply compliant recipients of these discriminatory ratings, instead employing a range of tactics to push back against them. First, some hosts reached out directly to Airbnb to contest the ratings. They wrote letters of complaint and included attachments of all correspondence, proving that the ratings were inaccurate. However, this tactic’s effectiveness wasn’t guaranteed. Airbnb would only take down ratings and reviews if they contained explicit hate speech. More expertly coded or unintentional forms of racial bias remained unrecognized. Second, hosts discussed the issue of racial bias with their guests directly. On their listings, they used keywords and phrases to clue in potential guests that they would stay in a majority Black area, aiming to deter racist guests before they booked a stay. Other times, hosts directly had conversations with their guests during or after their stay. Finally, hosts took action outside the confines of the Airbnb app ecosystem. A Ward 7 and 8 host group partnered with D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine to draft a letter to Airbnb about the racialized impacts of the Location Rating, requesting a change to the system.

In Demonic Grounds, Katherine McKitrick writes, “Finding and recognizing black geographies is difficult, not only because sociospatial denial, objectification, and capitalist value systems render them invisible, but also because the places and spaces of blackness are adversely shaped by the basic rules of traditional geographies.” [12] Bringing this insight to platforms like Airbnb opens the possibility to closely examine how the basic rules of platforms adversely shape places and spaces of Blackness. These practices are Black platform geographies in action.


References

Airbnb. “Airbnb and D.C.’s East of the River Communities.” Airbnb Citizen. August 6, 2018.

Airbnb. “How do star ratings work for stays?” Airbnb Help Center. Accessed, March 10, 2021. 

Airbnb. “Superhost: Recognizing the best in hospitality.” Airbnb. Accessed, March 1, 2021.

Benjamin, Ruha. Race after Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code. Newark: Polity Press, 2019.

Browne, Tiffany E. “Pushing through complacency to fight health disparities in D.C.’s African American communities.” D.C. Policy Center. May 18, 2017. 

D.C. Working Families. “Selling the District Short: Airbnb’s Impact in Washington D.C.” D.C. Share Better. March 2017. 

McKitrick, Katherine. Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 2006.

Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development and The Lab @ DC. DC Housing Survey Report: A Supplement to the Assessment of the Need for Large Units in the District of Columbia. Washington D.C: Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, June 2019. 

Penman, Maggie and Shankar Vedantam. “Update: #AirbnbWhileBlack.” NPR Hidden Brain. September 20, 2016.

Prince, Sabiyha. “Washington D.G.: District of Gentrification” in Shifting Neighborhoods: Gentrification and cultural displacement in American cities. National Community Reinvestment Coalition. March 18, 2019. 


Footnotes

[1] Maggie Penman and Shankar Vedantam, “Update: #AirbnbWhileBlack,” NPR Hidden Brain, September 20, 2016.

[2] Ruha Benjamin, Race after Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code, (Newark: Polity Press. 2019), 3.

[3] This number is based on Ward 7 and 8 data gathered from the short-term rental analytics website AirDNA.

[4] Airbnb, “Airbnb and D.C.’s East of the River Communities,” Airbnb Citizen, August 6, 2018.

[5]  There is good reason to be concerned about Airbnb potentially contributing to the gentrification of these Wards as it has in others. However, the data tells a different story: housing unaffordability and disinvestment play a larger role in displacing residents east of the river. According to a government report, “About 20% of respondents from Wards 7 and 8 indicated that they felt it would be likely that they would need to move within the next three years due to inability to pay a bank or landlord.” Although Airbnb may incentivize landlords to adopt higher rental prices and rent to short-term tenants over long-term residents, I focus here on how it is used by hosts to stay in their homes.

[6] Airbnb, “How do star ratings work for stays?” Airbnb Help Center, Accessed, March 10, 2021.

[7] Airbnb, “Superhost: Recognizing the best in hospitality,” Airbnb, Accessed, March 1, 2021. 

[8] Admittedly, the pandemic, a decrease in travel, and a decision not to list one’s home on Airbnb all play into what does and does not show up on the website. However, Ward 7 and 8 hosts have raised this as a concern before the pandemic so there is reason to believe that this problem stems from more than COVID-19.

[9] Tiffany E. Browne, “Pushing through complacency to fight health disparities in D.C.’s African American communities,” D.C. Policy Center, May 18, 2017. 

[10] Sabiyha Prince, “Washington D.G.: District of Gentrification” in Shifting Neighborhoods: Gentrification and cultural displacement in American cities, National Community Reinvestment Coalition, March 18, 2019. 

[11] Benjamin, 60.

[12] Katherine McKitrick, Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), 8-9.

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