I recently learned about Airbnb’s regulatory and reputation risk strategy: make a complaint about racial intolerance, then get banned for life. Forever. Irreversibly. Or, as the Airbnb customer service representative explained to me:
“We are trying to cut down on racial complaints. And you made a racial complaint. I see you received a confirmation of your complaint. So your account was frozen.”
This sorry saga about how Airbnb implements their strategic anti-discrimination policy started over the holidays when we responded to an advert about an apartment in Santo Domingo. It was peak season, and this was the last unit showing any vacancies. You can guess why. It was in German – perhaps the only listing in the Western Hemisphere in German. The nearest German-speaking nation is about a nine-hour away flight away, with a stopover/transfer.
Most potential guests seeking to rent in the Dominican Republic would skip the translator and move on. We do not speak a word of German, but my girlfriend and I know how to use the Google translate function. We did. We booked.
We arrived at the unit and were greeted by the maid. She looked us over and asked where we are from (my girlfriend has a dark complexion). I detected a sneer, but I’m no mind reader. My Spanish is lousy, we were exhausted, and so I just took the key and left it at that.
The following week was a nightmare. The next morning at about 8:00 AM, while still asleep, I heard someone opening the bedroom door. I thought we were getting robbed.
It was not a burglary; it was the maid. She ordered us out of bed as she wanted to clean the room. No discussion would change her mind. We stumbled into the living room, waited for her to make the bed and sweep the floor, and then went back to sleep.
The fun did not end. She made herself at home in in the kitchen, turned on the radio, made coffee, and explained she was “working” until 3:00 PM. She was going nowhere, like it or not.
We explained that it was very kind of her, but we absolutely did not require a maid, thank you very much. My partner speaks fluent Spanish. There was zero miscommunication. We thought the problem was solved. If only. The next morning, yet again, the maid returned, walked in the bedroom, and rousted us out of bed again. It looked like we had a live-in roommate.
I repeatedly contacted the host to request she call off her maid and finally got a reply. The maid, she explained, must visit the apartment every morning to “see if everything is okay”. She explained that the maid told her we were not white Americans; my partner nor I do not exactly “look American”.
The host’s exact words, if memory serve me, were, “I don’t want any Spanish, blacks or anyone from the street in the apartment. It’s a dangerous neighborhood.” My girlfriend, who I met through friends in Boston some years back, “is from the street, may be dangerous and could steal things.” Thus, the host required a security guard/maid to check on us, and see what we were up to in the bedroom at 8:00 AM.
The host explained that her Airbnb listing was in German. I found that odd as this host speaks better English than I do. She preferred only Germanic guests: from Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Northern Italy – and perhaps the Sudetenland, which was German in late 1930s.
The host noted my partner was a dark-skinned Latina and I did not use an accurate profile photo. In my photo, I appeared 100% Caucasian, as did my small cousin sitting next to me.
I explained to the host that if there was a problem, we would move out ASAP. She apologized away adding that it was not her who had issues, but neighbors in the building complaining to the doorman. They did not want Haitians, blacks, or dangerous-looking people (?). The host simply wanted to make sure nothing was stolen. She was expecting a Caucasian American family; the apartment could house four or five people. Instead, she got an Asian guy, and a dark-skinned girl.
Nonetheless, we stayed and a week later even requested several more days from the host.
On the morning of check-out day, sure enough, the maid woke us up in bed. We got up and let her clean the bedroom. Instead of going back to sleep, I went to take a shower. Some minutes later, when I opened the shower door, I saw the maid was now cleaning the bathroom sink. I am not a prudish guy, but when I step out of the shower that means I am not dressed in business casual.
This was just too much. I asked the maid to leave and even offered her $40. Then I realized what I should have figured out from day one. The maid said she cleaned for five days, and wanted to be paid more – not simply $40. Unfortunately, I only had about $80 on hand. That’s why guests use Airbnb: no cash necessary.
This is an old trick often played on tourists by local scammers; offer the tourist something, hope you take it, and then demand as much money as possible afterwards.
This maid was absolutely not going to settle for $80, or $40. Nor, it turned out, was the host going to pay her a penny. I need to hand over some money. Now.
This explanation about paying online though Airbnb, in my limited Spanish, fell on deaf ears. The maid wanted money. I was a foreign tourist. The host declared open season on foreign tourists, and I was it. I fled to the bedroom, shut the door, and rang the host. No answer. I then texted. Now the maid was pushing in the door and having a go at me.
Excuse the typos. I was holding the door closed with one hand and texting with the other:
In the end, I simply emptied my wallet with whatever I could find (“cash only”, no cards accepted).
The maid finally agreed to wait downstairs for us to pack up and leave. An hour later, we left the apartment with the key under the doormat, as agreed.
The fun did still did not end. While trying to drive out, the doorman refused to open the gate from the parking garage. He asked asking about getting paid a fee for the garage. Yet another tourist scam. The really exciting part was that not only was he keeping us locked inside the garage, but he was backed up by the building security guard who was conveniently armed with a shot gun.
This is an OJ Simpson scenario, and how the Juice ultimately served seven years, i.e. “Give me what I want, my pal here has a gun, and we don’t want anyone hurt.” Hint Hint. Technically speaking, that’s assault with a deadly weapon and unlawful imprisonment.
Fortunately, another car arrived and entered the garage, the gate opened, and off we drove.
While I was at the airport, the host finally called. She said I should have paid the maid a lot more – as she met us to get the key and now was cleaning the unit. And, she added, I damaged the apartment. She sent a dozen photos, one showing stain on a large pillow. The apartment had two bedrooms, many sofas, and zillions of pillows everywhere. The maid did an inventory, found one with a stain, and now I was charged, indicted, tried and found guilty of leaving a stain on her pillow. She argued about the stain with great indignation.
The stain on the$15 IKEA pillowcase was ridiculous. I told it I never saw it, but would simply pay an invoice to drop the matter. I explained, again, we were essentially robbed by the maid, and then held at gunpoint by the guard demanding money for parking. Airbnb must be notified.
Before leaving, I had earlier sent a complaint to Airbnb.
I sought no refund, no discount, no nothing. I naively thought I would be a part of the Airbnb much publicized community.
The host threatened that as I had complained, she would retaliate and complain about me and my girlfriend; we were not white and we were not registered (I am thinking this meant we misrepresented ourselves, as I appear Caucasian on my profile photo, and I am not exactly).
My response to this host at this point was simply: do what you want. I reported the maid, and the attack. If you want to exclude non-Caucasians, Latinos, Haitians, whatever, and have a complaint about me – go right ahead. I suggested we drop the matter, I was about to board my plane, and in the future, she should pay the maid a decent wage.
End of story… or so I hoped.
Two days later, I was contacted by Airbnb customer service in response to my complaint. They said – as expected – the host made a complaint that I damaged the apartment.
I then made a very foolish mistake of addressing each and every photo, in admittedly a smart-alecky manner as the complaints were so trivial, and then pointed out that this host had some hospitality issues. I received a confirmation to my response. In truth, complaining to Airbnb about racism is a very stupid idea.
Later, I got this message that Airbnb was unable to support my account moving forward. They have exercised discretion under Terms and Conditions. They are obligated to provide an explanation.
I am a guest banned for life for making a racial complaint.
I soon learned from Airbnb customer service that my ban resulted from my discrimination complaint. “We automatically block the account after we get that type of complaint – it goes to Trust and Safety,” he proudly chimed, and advised that if I withdrew my complaint, my account would be reactivated.
I also asked if this was about the pillowcase, or any other damages, charges or fees I owe. He assured me repeatedly that nothing was owed, no payment due. Withdrawing the racial complaint should unblock my account, “As we are trying to eliminate these types of complaints.”
Statistically, this makes sense. Out of, say, the last 100 instances of a guest making a complaint, in perhaps 75% of cases, a previous complaint had been earlier sent to “Trust and Safety”. So, if you ban guests upon their first racial complaint, you will likely eliminate most future complaints of racism.
This may have a vague degree of legitimacy from a risk management strategic point, but it is illegal. It is illegal retaliation under the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL). It is illegal to retaliate under the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA). This is not only my opinion, but also the view of the attorneys at the NYC Human Rights Commission.
Nonetheless, I sent in my apology/withdrawal, later checked my account, and it seemed to work, although I did not book anything. Just last week, I discovered that the “unable to support my account moving forward” will not be reversed. That is what the Airbnb Customer Experience Trust and Safety had said, and they are good to their word.
Once you make a racial complaint, they will be unable to support your account going forward as Airbnb does not want you nor your big mouth complaining about racism. Forever. For life. As they are fighting racism.
So now Airbnb will test their “retaliate against loud mouth guests who complain about discrimination by banning them” policy with the NYC Human Rights Commission. We will go to AAA Arbitration, as per the Airbnb terms and conditions. This will be $10-20K for Airbnb in legal fees. But in the run up to their IPO, banning guests who complain about racism has become a top priority.
Airbnb shall fight on the seas and oceans, fight in the air, and fight on the beaches. But Airbnb shall never surrender in their struggle to eliminate racial complaints – by retaliating against and banning guests who complain, and being unable to support my account going forward.
Never complain about racism to Airbnb. You will be banned for life.
PS: The host was able to list her apartment on Airbnb a few days later.