Airbnb doesn’t care about people like me.
I learned this the hard way a few months ago when I tried to find accommodation in Washington, D.C.
After chaperoning two busloads of youth from New York City for the March for Our Lives, I decided to stay a couple more days. The other chaperones agreed to ride the bus back to New York City with the kids, and I logged into my new Airbnb account for the first time to find a place to spend the night. Soon after locating and booking a suitable place, I received an email from Airbnb stating:
“Upon review, and given information uncovered pursuant to online public records, we have determined that it is in the best interest of Airbnb, and for the users on our site, to deactivate your account.”
Airbnb confirmed what I already knew: The reason for the company deactivating my account was my conviction for attempted robbery, and first- and second-degree assault, 16 years ago.
Airbnb’s website identifies certain criminal convictions as a reason to disqualify people from using its service. Now, after years of healing and loving work, I am confronted, yet again, with the cruel reality that society makes people like me keep paying for mistakes far beyond our prison term.
I am exhausted fighting this battle, but I know that if this injustice goes unchallenged, the approximately 20 million un-incarcerated people in the United States with felony convictions will continue to live in the shadows — punished eternally for the mistakes of our youth.
In 1999, when I was 19, I was one of several people who participated in the armed robbery of a bakery. The heist ended with two men (the owner and manager) getting killed and others getting injured. I was the lookout. But my conviction carried the full weight of all the crimes committed that day.
One 2012 Bureau of Justice Statistics survey indicated that as many as 100 million adults in the United States and some of its territories — or nearly a third of the total population — have a criminal record of some sort. For many, as The Atlantic notes, we are also being perpetually punished for what amounts to existing in the wrong skin or community.
Since my arrest, I have wholly dedicated myself to a life of service and love.
While in prison, I co-founded How Our Lives Link Altogether, a youth mentoring program. Once on the outside, I helped run Youth Organizing to Save Our Streets, a group that specializes in ending gun violence and using mediation. My podcast, Decarcerated, highlights the journeys, successes and struggles of people with criminal convictions. Ebony magazine named me one of the 100 most inspiring leaders in the black community in 2015.
Yet, I am still denied the simple ability to host or book a room with Airbnb.
I can certainly understand the apprehension. If I were renting out a space, I would want to know everything about my tenant as well. But I would also take into account how they’ve changed their lives. How long should people pay for mistakes of their past? When is enough enough?
Does Airbnb or Trooly, the background check company purchased by Airbnb, have an algorithm to account for people like me who have paid their debt to society?
Apparently, Airbnb does not want to share its share service with some people who have had criminal convictions, regardless of how long ago the conviction occurred or what people have done since their release.
This policy is not just morally wrong, it also conflicts with an April 2016 federal guidance of the Fair Housing Act, which articulates that a housing provider violates the FHA if its policy “imposes a blanket prohibition on any person with any conviction record — no matter when the conviction occurred, what the underlying conduct entailed, or what the convicted person has done since then.”
Airbnb’s policy choices could be turning back the clock on discrimination, especially when it comes to people of color. A Harvard field experiment called Racial Discrimination in the Sharing Economy found that “while rental markets have achieved significant reductions in discrimination in recent decades, our results suggest that Airbnb’s current design choices facilitate discrimination and raise the possibility of erasing some of these civil rights gains.”
In a world where discrimination along color lines has long since been outlawed, people with criminal convictions have become the easiest demographic to dismiss with one brush. With African-Americans incarcerated disproportionately to the overall population, Airbnb is implying that there are certain people it is willing to quickly eliminate from its franchise.
Our economy is moving steadily toward sharing. It’s high time that we do away with any policies or technologies that effectively impose blanket bans on people with criminal convictions. We must overhaul these policies and build transparency into information-gathering processes so that marginalized people do not experience indefinite social exclusion.
Let’s start with Airbnb, whose practices are antithetical to its own stated mission.
The second paragraph of the Airbnb nondiscrimination policy reads: “The Airbnb community is committed to building a world where people from every background feel welcomed and respected, no matter how far they have traveled from home.”
That policy seems to apply to everyone except people like me and millions of others living with certain convictions in America.
I call on Airbnb to change this wrong and immoral policy today, and for others to join me in urging the company to change course.
Marlon Peterson is a writer, social justice advocate and host of the podcast Decarcerated, which highlights the successful journeys of people who have been incarcerated.