Happy Valley woman says Airbnb policies lead to discrimination
A Happy Valley woman is suing Airbnb Inc., claiming the international short-term rental company allows some property owners the option to reject African-Americans and other minorities who try to book rentals.
Patricia Harrington's 11-page complaint filed Monday, March 6, claims that Airbnb's rental platform discriminates against people of color and violates Oregon's public accommodation laws.
Portland attorneys Stoll Berne and Nick Kahl LLC, representing Harrington, asked Multnomah County Circuit Court to certify the case as a class-action on behalf of minority renters who were rejected by property owners using Airbnb's program.
"Airbnb is a public accommodation under Oregon law because it offers services and lodging to the public," said attorney Nicholas A. Kahl. "Airbnb, like all other providers of public accommodations, must follow the law by preventing and prohibiting discrimination."
Laura Rillos, Airbnb spokeswoman, said Harrington's claims were "without merit" and properties listed on the San Francisco company's websites were "open and accessible to everyone."
"We strongly oppose bias and discrimination and under our Open Doors policy, we help anyone who believes they have been discriminated against and ensure they find a place to stay," Rillos said. "While we don't believe this lawsuit has merit, we will continue to work tirelessly to make our community open and accessible to everyone. Everyone who uses Airbnb must agree to the Airbnb Community Commitment — a commitment to treat everyone with respect and without judgement or bias — and today we have over 1.25 million listings that can be booked without prior host approval of a specific guest."
No court date has been set for the lawsuit.
Harrington's lawsuit claimed Airbnb's booking policies violate Oregon law by mandating that guests who want to access accommodations available on Airbnb's platform maintain a profile that includes a photograph and the guest's full name. The profile photo and name of the guest are required at the time of booking and hosts can consider the booking based on those and other characteristics.
Some Airbnb hosts use the option to deny booking requests from African-American guests because of their race, according to the complaint. Harrington's attorneys said that African-American members of Airbnb did not have access to the same accommodations available to other guests, violating Oregon's public accommodations laws.
"If the public learned that a major hotel chain would not allow guests to book rooms online without the hotel first looking at the guest's photograph and full name, there would be outrage," said attorney Joshua L. Ross, who also represents Harrington. "In many ways, the new shared economy allows discrimination to continue in a somewhat hidden manner, but the same rules apply. Much like the public should expect to have access to online booking of hotel rooms without fear of discrimination, we ask that Airbnb, which maintains a public accommodation, follow the same practice."
Harrington's complaint said Airbnb's 2 million listings worldwide dwarf most major hotel chains. Last year, the company served 300,000 travelers in Portland.
Harrington said Airbnb rejected her request to book online rentals without creating an account that requires a photo and full name. Her lawsuit claims that Airbnb hosts can use a setting to receive booking requests "only from prospective guests whose profiles include certain specified information," which could be used to block African-American renters or others.
"In other words, in compliance with Airbnb's booking policies, hosts may refuse to make their accommodations accessible to any prospective guest whose profile does not include certain information, such as a photograph or full name," according to Harrington's lawsuit.
Her attorneys said the policy allows Airbnb to aid and abet "its hosts in unlawful discrimination by establishing booking policies that allow its member hosts to discriminate based on protected characteristics, and by continuing to maintain such policies even while it concedes that they are discriminatory."
Harrington's lawsuit asks for fees and costs. She plans to amend the complaint to include monetary damages.
In addition to class-action status, the lawsuit wants the court to approve an injunction forcing Airbnb to allow people of color to join as members and to access accommodations without setting up a profile that could lead to discrimination.
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