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Traveling While Black

That short-term rental might not be an escape from discrimination. Here’s how to fight back.

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After a year of being stuck in the house, taking a trip — any trip — sounds heavenly to me. Since I’ve finally gotten my second Pfizer shot, I feel safe enough to start plotting my first post-COVID getaway. Turns out, I’m not alone.

Occupancy at short-term rental properties hit an all-time high for the month of March, according to research firm AirDNA, as some travelers look to house rentals as a safer bet than crowded hotels during the pandemic.

If you’re ready for a few days of relaxation and a chance to finally catch up in person with family and friends, a short-term rental can provide the change of scenery you crave. But if past is precedent, it may not be an escape from racism.  

A persistent problem

Vacation rental companies such as Airbnb, Vrbo and have transformed the travel industry, giving travelers alternatives to staying at pricey hotels and property owners an easy way to rent out their homes. However, the industry has been plagued with instances of racism — not by the companies themselves, but by the people who use the platforms.  

Tryels believes the homeowner retaliated against her because of her negative review and used a racist stereotype to do so. 'He played to that stereotype of ‘angry Black people’ — we're criminals and we have firearms,' she says. 'He was flat-out lying.' 

When Patrice Williams of Los Angeles booked a rental in Las Vegas a few years ago as a Mother’s Day treat for her mom, she thought the mini-vacation was all set. “I made the payment, then made other arrangements for the trip,” she says. But the next day, the property owner contacted Williams and said there had been a technical error. The rental was no longer available.    

However, when Williams contacted customer support, she learned that there had not been a technical error at all. In fact, the property owner had relisted the property as being available on Mother’s Day weekend after Williams’ reservation had been cancelled. The rental company ended up offering Williams a $100 credit to book another property, but the experience left her with such a bad taste in her mouth that she booked a room at a hotel instead. “We ended up paying more, but at least we were treated like everyone else,” she says.
In some cases, like Williams’, properties were suddenly no longer available once the owner discovered the renter was Black. In other cases, Black travelers were accused of wrongdoing for no justifiable reason. For example, film director and screenwriter Kelly Fyffe-Marshall was one of three people who found themselves surrounded by seven police cars and a helicopter when packing their car after a stay at a short-term rental in Southern California. A video that Fyffe-Marshall posted of the incident shows one of the officers saying a neighbor had called the police about “three Black people stealing stuff.”

LaTanya Tryels, 39, of Houston rented a house last September in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, for her grandmother's 90th birthday. Dissatisfied with her stay, Tryels left a review on the short-term rental company’s website describing her family’s unpleasant experience. Shortly afterwards, the property owner accused her family of having a firearm in the house.

Tryels believes the homeowner retaliated against her because of her negative review and used a racist stereotype to do so. “He played to that stereotype of ‘angry Black people’ — we're criminals and we have firearms,” she says. “He was flat-out lying.” 

Then there are cases in which property owners do things that make Black travelers understandably uncomfortable. One property on a short-term rental site had a Confederate flag hanging prominently in the front yard. In another case, in October of last year, model Alexandra Undone found a hidden camera disguised as a phone charger in her short-term rental.

While Airbnb isn’t the only company that has experienced the problem, it is the most visible of the short-term rental companies, and the hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack has emerged as a digital space for travelers to share instances of discrimination.

For its part, Airbnb says that since 2016, the platform has removed 1.3 million people because they discriminated against other users of the service. The company has also launched Project Lighthouse, an initiative to research and come up with policies to fight discrimination. The company hopes to prevent hosts from discriminating against potential renters by not allowing the profile photos of guests to be displayed until a booking is confirmed. Other short-term rental companies such as Vrbo also have anti-discrimination policies.

Though some travelers have had bad experiences, many others have had wonderful vacations staying at short-term rentals. “I travel all the time," says Tryels. "You can go back and look at my reviews of the other people who I've rented from and they're all positive."

How to fight back

If you do find yourself in the unfortunate position of experiencing discrimination at a short-term rental property, there are actions you can take.

Report the behavior. Let the rental company know what happened. They may take action against the property owner.

Spread the word. Warn future travelers by describing the offending behavior on the rental company’s website or other review sites such as TripAdvisor.

Consider your safety. Speaking up immediately and in person may not be prudent. “There are situations in which you have to gauge if and when it's appropriate to say something or to simply remove yourself from the situation as quickly as possible,” says Tausha Cowan, who runs the travel blog The Globe Getter.  

Keep your money in the community. In 2015, when Stefan Grant and four friends were staying at a short-term rental in DeKalb, Georgia, neighbors called the police on them because they assumed they were burglars rather than renters. That spurred him to launch Noirbnb, a travel community that focuses on creating experiences, and finding housing, for Black travelers. If you’d prefer to stay in a hotel, The National Association of Black Hotel Owners, Operators & Developers (NABHOOD) features a hotel directory on their website. Also, the Blackout Coalition, an initiative to support Black-owned businesses features a list of Black-owned hotels and resorts.

Get recommendations through Black travel groups. Groups such as the Nomadness Travel Tribe provide a space for Black travelers to bond and share information. The Travel Noire app lets you communicate with other travelers, as well as find travel deals and other information geared toward the Black travel community.

What you shouldn’t do is let one bad experience stop you from traveling, says Tryels. “I wouldn't let that deter me from renting again.”