The Airbnb Racial Divide: What's Your Take?

There's a site called "Inside Airbnb" that collects and publicizes data about Airbnb activity and usage in cities around the world.  Its take on Airbnb is generally highly critical.  Founder Murray Cox describes himself as "an independent digital storyteller, community activist and technologist."

A few days ago this site came out with a Report on Airbnb in New York City titled "The Face of Airbnb, New York City."  The subtitle is "Airbnb as a Racial Gentrification Tool."  I am interested on the reaction of readers to the issues raised by this Report.

As background, you undoubtedly know or suspect that there are a large number of predominantly black neighborhoods in New York City.  For this Report, Inside Airbnb counts 72 of them.  While some of those neighborhoods are rather gritty, many of them are quite beautiful.  Examples of the latter include much of Harlem in Manhattan (excluding its public housing projects), and places like Fort Greene, Clinton Hill and Bedford Stuyvesant in Brooklyn.  The website 6sqft, covering the Inside Airbnb Report, includes this picture of a typical block in Bed-Stuy:

Now that these neighborhoods have become quite safe, Airbnb would seem to be a perfect income-making opportunity for the legions of black homeowners.  The houses -- many purchased decades ago for under $100,000 -- now go for $1 million and up; but of course the homeowner can't get the mil without selling and moving.  Airbnb offers the chance to get some considerable income while staying put, and also not having to deal with long-term tenants.

So what is the take of Inside Airbnb?  You can guess it from that subtitle ("racial gentrification tool").  Black residents "suffer the most":

Black neighborhoods with the most Airbnb use are racially gentrifying, and the (often illegal) economic benefits of Airbnb accrue disproportionately to new, white residents and white speculators; while the majority Black residents in those communities suffer the most from the loss of housing, tenant harassment and the disruption of their communities.

Inside Airbnb documents what appears to be a dramatic discrepancy between the rates at which white versus black homeowners make their spaces available via the Airbnb site.  For example:

  • Across all 72 predominantly Black New York City neighborhoods, Airbnb hosts are 5 times more likely to be white
    In those neighborhoods, the Airbnb host population is 74% white, while the white resident population is only 13.9%
  • White Airbnb hosts in Black neighborhoods earned in total an estimated $159.7 million, compared to only $48.3 million for Black hosts
    73.7% of income accumulating to a group representing only 13.9% of the population is a 530% economic disparity
     . . . .  
  • The neighborhood with the highest Airbnb racial disparity was Stuyvesant Heights, in the heart of Black Central Brooklyn, where there was:
    • a 1,012% disparity in the number of Airbnb listings by white hosts
    • an economic disparity of 857% for the total revenue accumulated by white hosts
    • housing and neighborhood disruption due to Airbnb 12 times more likely to affect Black residents than white residents

Funny, but here in Bill de Blasio's New York, I had thought that the single biggest issue, and particularly for African Americans, was "income inequality."  I'm old enough to remember when de Blasio called income inequality the "biggest economic challenge we face."  Actually, that quote is from 2015.  And de Blasio has said plenty of similar things on dozens of occasions both before and after.  

Yet here -- if you believe the Inside Airbnb data (and I have no particular reason to doubt it) -- we have large numbers of African Americans presented with a relatively easy income-generating opportunity, and somehow just not taking advantage of it.  And as far as I can see, in this instance, there is no possibility of asserting some kind of discrimination as the cause for black homeowners not earning the income.  This is not like an employer paying one employee more and another less.  Unless I'm missing something, the black home and apartment owners should have the exact same opportunity as their white peers to list some of their space on Airbnb.  It might take some effort to clean your place up and make it presentable for guests, but doing the actual listing is not very hard at all.

And by the way, I'm not saying that I blame the black residents if they don't want to rent out any of their space on Airbnb.  I don't do that with any of my own space.  But then again, I'm not complaining about any lack of income.  If I was in need of income, I would definitely consider renting out some of my space to generate some.

Anyway, if the big issue really were income inequality, you would think that the progressive response would be to try to help and encourage the black residents to get in on the income opportunities.  If that were your goal, a first step would be to ease up on the restrictive regulations so that more blacks can use Airbnb legally.  (Currently use of Airbnb is generally legal for homeowners, but not for renters.)  Another step might be to offer a seminar on how to use Airbnb.  But instead the push is in exactly the opposite direction.  It seems that we must be horrified at all that despicable income-generation going on all around us.  (According to Inside Airbnb, people trying to make a buck off their properties cause "loss of housing, tenant harassment, and disruption of communities.")

One might get the impression that, to the progressive, the income inequality issue is much more about stoking resentment against the successful, and much less about finding ways for low income people to rise to middle and upper income.  But as I said, I'm interested in the views of readers on this subject.