Airbnb Tolls for Thee

By Chandra Bozelko

February 22, 2019 5 min read

Joe Watson served more than 10 years in prison for armed robbery. In the two years since his release, he's gotten married and landed a career in communications at the American Friends Service Committee in Tucson. He is so trusted that he's been granted a pass to avoid the metal detector when he enters the Arizona House of Representatives to fight for the rights and dignity of the men and women who live in the same carceral conditions he did for over a decade.

One obstacle he hasn't scaled yet is renting an Airbnb property. He was banned from the online marketplace that connects renters and hosts because of his criminal record.

But Airbnb didn't say that. After Watson tried to book a stay for an advocacy conference in September, the company sent him an email stating that it was "unable to support (his) account." Airbnb asserted that it was "not obligated to provide an explanation" and their "decision will not be reversed."

After all he had done to rehabilitate and redeem himself, the rejection stung. But it wasn't as bad as learning that his wife was also outlawed this past weekend.

Joe's wife has nary an arrest, much less a criminal conviction. She'd been an Airbnb customer for years, before she married Joe, with not one negative review from hosts. Her offense is that she's wed to someone with a felony conviction — and they're connected by a shared credit card account. She received the same email as her husband: Airbnb didn't have to explain why it was dropping her and there would be no review.

If Airbnb admitted that they simply didn't want people with criminal records as customers, we could do little about it, legally speaking. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination by privately owned places of public accommodation (like hotels) on the basis of race, color, religion or national origin. Criminal records are, unfortunately, fair game.

When I asked the press office why Airbnb doesn't just state that it denies applicants/customers based on criminal history — along with inquiring whether merely being married to someone with a rap sheet was enough to lose one's account — the company's spokesperson, Ben Breit, served me a nonanswer:

"While no background check system is infallible, we screen all hosts and guests globally against regulatory, terrorist, and sanctions watch lists. For United States residents, we also run background checks looking for prior felony convictions, sex offender registrations, and significant misdemeanors."

The reason why Airbnb isn't transparent about their reasons and unwillingness to reconsider their decisions is that they know it will cost the company a lot.

Seventy million people have some type of criminal record in the United States. Watson's wife is among the 113 million more people who have an immediate family member who is or was incarcerated, according to a study released in November by the bipartisan political organization Fwd.us. In total, that's more than 1 in 2 adults in this country who are at risk of having an Airbnb account closed if they're found out. If you're one of them, you might get locked out of Airbnb before you can arrange to pick up the keys.

Airbnb, now a privately held company that's planning an IPO sometime this year, has pre-emptively written off almost 183 million U.S. customers in their plan to reach 45.6 million users worldwide by 2022. That doesn't make sense.

I don't dispute that screening renters and hosts is due diligence on Airbnb's part. After all, if someone convicted of vandalism damaged an Airbnb host's home, insurance might not cover the loss and it wouldn't be decent or legal to leave that host will a repair bill. Screening is a form of insurance.

But because Airbnb uses blanket bans, their due diligence isn't diligent at all. If it were, it would suspend applicants temporarily and then examine how they've changed their lives, perhaps through a dedication to self-improvement and family, or by working at a good job that serves others, like Joe Watson has done. And it wouldn't refuse a family member's patronage based on another's actions.

It's time to boycott Airbnb. Not only for discrimination but also to demonstrate to other companies that an across-the-board, no-second-look policy that refuses customers — along with their families — for pasts they've overcome is a doomed business model in an era of mass incarceration.

To find out more about Chandra Bozelko and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators website at www.creators.com.

Photo credit: at Pixabay

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