Editor’s note: A quote by Murray Cox has been added to provide full context.
Updated Tuesday, June 27, 2017, 1:38 p.m. EDT: On Monday The Root published this original article, which used data to argue that the home-sharing company Airbnb is being used as a tool for gentrification in Brooklyn, N.Y.
After the article was published, representatives from Airbnb reached out to explain their problems with one of the studies our piece was based on, as well as the conclusion of the article.
Their main complaint was the methodology of Inside Airbnb’s study. Airbnb’s representatives argued that the study was not a peer-reviewed study done by academic researchers, and that many black Airbnb hosts used the company as a tool for economic empowerment. They also claimed that the study determined the race of the hosts from pictures of the hosts. Finally, the company insisted that the study did not take a look at other reasons for gentrification in Brooklyn, such as homeownership rates.
We contacted Murray Cox, the author of the study (who, for the sake of clarity, identifies as white), and presented Airbnb’s concerns to him one by one. After listening to Airbnb’s problems, Cox acknowledged this:
“AirBnB is 100 percent right, but that any small errors attributed to limits in the methodology or data were offset by the massive disparity my research found.”
To be clear, in none of its correspondence with The Root (or in its criticism of the study when it was first released) did Airbnb say that the study’s data was wrong—only that it criticized Cox’s methodology. In Airbnb’s criticism, it quotes Robert Livingston of Harvard University. Livingston is the same Harvard professor who worked with Airbnb to quell the racial-discrimination claims against the company when the company was forced to answer complaints from black customers about hosts who discriminated against them.
Airbnb charges that the race of the hosts was determined by looking at pictures, which didn’t account for multiracial people or Hispanics—which is true. Cox used facial-recognition software called Face++, which was also used in a peer-reviewed study at Harvard Business School to analyze racial discrimination. Both studies found similar data, even when the Harvard study went back and analyzed race on a case-by-case basis without using the software.
Airbnb’s concerns on this front are valid because a scientifically accurate way to correctly identify race (even self-identifying race is problematic and is thought to be one of the most flawed ways of calculating race data) doesn’t exist, because race isn’t a thing.
Cox acknowledges that his study was not peer-reviewed and did not look at factors like homeownership rates or at other communities where Airbnb exists as a control subject. He argues that—even though he has worked in other anti-oppression studies—this study wasn’t done for academia or scholarly purposes. He reiterated that his study was reviewed by the New York Times,
Harvard scholars, scientists and others, and only two peers have disputed the data—Livingston and Laura Murphy—both of whom worked with Airbnb in some capacity to quell the company’s racial-discrimination debacle.
The bulk of the pushback against Cox’s study is that there are a number of black Airbnb hosts who say that Airbnb has helped both their communities and them individually. The Root was contacted by Airbnb hosts who shared their stories with us, like Michelle, who wrote:
I am an Airbnb host. Airbnb was a financial blessing for me, why; because I’m a single parent and the extra income allowed me to put my daughter through college; she graduated in May, 2017.....yippie!!! The article states how Airbnb causes gentrification, homelessness and stops African Americans from staying in their homes or not have opportunities to travel [...]
Politicians and reporters should look and investigate the real problem and stop picking Airbnb as a NEWS story, because it is fake news. I’ve seen, experienced and lived the ups and downs of neighborhoods as a tenant, landlord and homeowner and Airbnb is not the issue for the gentrification, homeless debacle. Those who are surviving in these now expensive neighborhoods, use Airbnb to survive and new businesses have capitalized on making money opening new, tech savvy businesses; it has built tourism in every borough (great for NYS) as well as a contribution to small businesses, including the mom and pops. The mom and pops who are no longer around is due to high rent. not Airbnb... Let’s move on. Lets focus on reality not the new companies (Airbnb) who made sense and helped others to survive.
Another correspondent challenged us to speak to the real people, saying:
It’s really shameful how the corporate entities has framed this manufactured mythical narrative. That charges the platform and the host community for gentrification in brooklyn.
The reality has and still continues to be the developers and the politician who they have in their pockets that rape and pillage Our communities. Along with the despicable acts of injustice In the name of buissness as usual.
A lot of us have leveraged the platform as a creative solution to problems we didn’t create. And continue to call out these crooks.
If you want to know the real nitty gritty deal about what’s really going down.
I dare you to speak with real people.
Read Airbnb’s entire response to the study here.
Everyone loves Airbnb. The company that connects hosts with customers searching for short-term lodging has become a favorite for travelers who want options outside of the traditional hotel market. But one of the latest charges leveled against the rapidly expanding company is that it has become one of the major tools for gentrification.
Activists, residents and researchers complain that Airbnb is driving up prices in neighborhoods across the country, displacing longtime residents and turning traditionally diverse, minority neighborhoods into whitewashed enclaves of artisanal bakeries, overpriced dog groomers and locally sourced, vegan butcher shops. And in no place is Airbnb’s gentrifying influence more apparent than in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Everyone loves Brooklyn. It is the birthplace of two of America’s greatest treasures—Nathan’s hot dogs and the Notorious B.I.G. The U.S. Constitution mandates that every party held in the continental United States must have at least one person from Brooklyn to scream out when the DJ asks, “Where Brooklyn at?”
But recently, New York City’s most flavorful borough has become the prototype for how hipster herds can bleach communities of color and transform them into exclusive destinations for the great Caucasian migration. The brownstones from whose windows once blasted island music, and streets that once smelled of gyros and falafels, have been replaced with Gap outlets and Subway sandwich shops.
Brooklyn is ground zero for gentrification, but is Airbnb somehow at fault for bringing the hipsters in cool consignment-store skirts and carefully ripped skinny jeans?
The Brooklyn Movement Center, a community-organizing group dedicated to self-determination and empowerment of central Brooklynites, has combined data, analytics and investigative journalism to highlight how Airbnb is changing the BK landscape. The Root decided to use BMC’s data and resources to figure out how Airbnb has bleached Brooklyn.
Most of our data came from a report for Brooklyn Deep (BMC’s investigative reporting arm) by Inside Airbnb’s Murray Cox titled, “Airbnb as a Racial Gentrification Tool” (pdf). The report provides an all-encompassing study of Airbnb’s impact on gentrification in Brooklyn.
What is gentrification?
Do you remember that soul food place that was once where the Panera Bread is now? You know how you walked past the basketball courts every morning and then, one day, you noticed they had been miraculously torn down and replaced by condos? Do you recall how your landlord told you that if you wanted to renew your lease, the rent would double, but your bathroom faucet still leaks brown water when you turn it on?
That’s gentrification. Gentrification is when white people decide they like a place, so they move in and make it better. And by “better,” we mean whiter. Just the mere presence of white people changes a neighborhood. They’ll give it a cool new name (like “SoHa,” for a section of black people’s Harlem, or like “America,” which replaced a Native American word that means “I hope white people don’t find us”). Immediately, rent rises, real estate prices go up and any place that uses seasoning in its food disappears.
How does Airbnb contribute to this?
While the company doesn’t have an explicit policy that says, “I want to exploit black neighborhoods,” Airbnb has had a major impact on minority Brooklyn neighborhoods in three areas:
- White Airbnb hosts make most of the money—even in black neighborhoods.
- Airbnb fuels gentrification by driving up rental prices and displacing residents.
- Airbnb shifts the cultural and economic landscape toward white people.
Wait. Did you say white people make most of the money even in black neighborhoods?
You read that correctly. Brooklyn Deep and Inside Airbnb’s study shows that across all 72 predominantly black neighborhoods in Brooklyn, the revenue from white hosts more than tripled the dollar amount black hosts received.
White Airbnb hosts in New York’s black neighborhoods made up 13.9 percent of the population but were 74 percent of Airbnb’s hosts in black neighborhoods, earning $159 million between 2010 and 2014, compared with black hosts who made only $43 million—even though blacks made up 79.6 percent of the population. With 74 percent of income accumulating to a group representing only 13.9 percent of the population, that creates a 530 percent economic disparity, the study found, and this in Airbnb’s largest market and in the most diverse city in the world.
In Brooklyn, every one of the top 20 predominantly black neighborhoods has a disparately white Airbnb host population, the study found, and every one of the top 18 predominantly black neighborhoods has a majority-white host population. The Stuyvesant Heights neighborhood represents the worst economic disparity—1,012 percent. In a neighborhood where blacks make up 90 percent of the population, whites control three-quarters of the Airbnb market.
In black Brooklyn neighborhoods, millions of dollars are exchanging hands, none of it going into black pockets.
But how does this contribute to gentrification?
Because Airbnb has become a large catalyst for the Brooklyn housing market’s shift toward white, affluent millennials. According to a study by the NYU Furman Center, between 2010 and 2014, New York’s gentrifying neighborhoods became whiter (the white population grew from 18.8 percent to 20.6 percent), younger (60 percent of the “movers” were ages 20-34) and richer (household income tripled). We couldn’t find any data on kale sales or the percentage increase in smoothies consumed, but trust us, Brooklyn is gentrifying.
Airbnb has made it almost impossible to find a home for rental at a reasonable rate in Brooklyn. According to City-Data, 72 percent of Brooklyn’s residents rent their homes, giving the borough the 14th-highest percentage of renters in the U.S. A larger percentage of Brooklyn’s renters are black, meaning that they are disproportionately affected by Airbnb’s effect on the rental market.
In Brooklyn’s black neighborhoods, where Airbnb makes its biggest profits, white Airbnb owners have scooped up available listings to use them as host homes. This lowers the number of available homes, which, in turn, drives up rents, forcing lower-income and minority residents out of the area.
Even in buildings where apartments are available, if the current tenants are willing to pay higher rent because of the profits they make from Airbnb, landlords are likely to raise the prices of apartments as they become available.
The influx of white tourists who use Airbnbs in black Brooklyn neighborhoods because of their proximity to Manhattan and downtown has even changed the business landscape. Walk down any central Brooklyn street, and you will see McDonald’s and Whole Foods in places that were once bodegas and diners. A whiter, richer population means the traditional retailers have given way to large chains and businesses that cater to white customers, forcing smaller, mom-and-pop shops out of the area.
“The most negative aspect of the entire thing is what I call ‘the racial cleansing’ of Brooklyn,” Mark Winston Griffith, executive director of the Brooklyn Movement Center, told The Root. “It’s not just the white faces and the white families. It’s the institutions. It’s the storefronts. The whole cultural orientation of the neighborhood has shifted, and made it a place that does not cater as much to long-term residents and people of color, and is now trying very hard to attract as many white people as possible.”
Does this make Airbnb racist?
Can an app be racist? No. (Although I think my iPhone’s Siri sometimes gets a real snide attitude when I ask her something twice.) Murray Cox’s study reached the conclusion that Airbnb is instead a tool for racial gentrification, which isn’t the same as saying Airbnb is responsible for gentrification.
For example, police officers’ guns aren’t responsible for killing a disproportionate number of black people; it is the people who pull the triggers and the laws that protect them that must be addressed.
How can this change?
This is a complex question because there is no one solution. Some suggestions are:
- Lobby cities to limit the number of Airbnb hosts.
- Change temporary-lodging laws.
- Strengthen tenant rights groups.
- Stop patronizing white Airbnb hosts, especially in black neighborhoods.
... and most importantly:
Never, ever drink a vegan smoothie in Brooklyn.
Learn more about the Brooklyn Movement Center and its investigative reporting arm, Brooklyn Deep.