Hosts react to Airbnb's new nondiscrimination policy

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COLUMBIA - MU's first home football game is this weekend, and several visitors to Columbia might be staying in homes they found on Airbnb. Even so, not everyone has found Airbnb inclusive.

Airbnb is a website and mobile application that connects people looking for places to stay for short periods of time with people who rent out their homes or rooms in their home. The company released a report Thursday after criticism that it was easy for a host to refuse to rent his or her home or rooms based on a guest's race, disability, ethnicity or other minority status. 

The report listed several ways the company will try to fight discrimination, including having users agree to a "Community Commitment," creating a team of employees to improve inclusion and lowering the prominence of user photos so hosts can't discriminate against potential guests based on appearance.

McKenzie Ordway uses Airbnb to rent out a spare bedroom to other Airbnb users. She said she is a very open person and was surprised when she found out about the discrimination complaints.

"We've had literally all kinds of races here, all kinds of like, genders, everything," Ordway said. "We've never had a problem with discrimination, and I don't know if that would be a big issue here in Columbia."

Lexy Bell is also an Airbnb host in Columbia. She said she avoids discrimination by using instant booking.

"As long as an Airbnb guest has a valid credit card on file and they're verified as far as their address and email and phone number, then they can go ahead and book with me instantly," she said.

Rigel Oliveri is an MU law professor who specializes in housing discrimination. She said Airbnb's report isn't as good as it could be to prevent discrimination. 

"When you're deciding whether or not to allow somebody to rent your Airbnb, you know, their name or their photo really shouldn't matter to your decision-making process," she said. 

Oliveri said in addition to discriminating against people based on their appearance, people might consciously or unconsciously discriminate against people who have names associated with a particular ethnicity.  

Bell said the company's policy isn't as strong as she would like it to be either. She said the company could try using usernames instead of actual names so people can't discriminate based on that factor.

One host KOMU 8 News contacted had concerns with Airbnb placing less focus on photos.

"I would like to see the photo and the name, then I know someone is not booking with other people's information," Airbnb host Li Yu said.

Several other Airbnb hosts KOMU 8 News contacted said the policy is a step in the right direction.

Oliveri said Airbnb wasn't required to come up with a nondiscrimination policy under the Fair Housing Act because the online company isn't a housing provider. 

"Even if, technically, legally they could get away with maintaining the business model that they'd had, they recognize that they need to change," Oliveri said. "They want the goodwill of the people who are using their services."

Bell said she attempts to accommodate each of her guests no matter what.

"I just try to make them feel like they're family," she said. "I mean they are staying in my home and they're my guests, so regardless of race, color or disability, I feel like that's really important as a host."

Many of Airbnb's new policies begin Nov. 1.