A recent study released by Harvard Business School professors says black hosts on Airbnb typically charge lower fees than non-black hosts for similar properties, signaling the black hosts may be facing discrimination through the online service.
The study looked at Airbnb members with properties listed in New York City in 2012. On average, non-black hosts charged approximately 12 percent more than black hosts for similar rentals.
Airbnb is a startup that has risen in popularity for letting users rent spare rooms or vacation homes, among other things, from others for short stays. The service is an alternative to hotels and lets owners make extra money renting their properties.
The properties that were compared in the study had similar characteristics and qualities, according to the professors.
"These differences highlight the risk of discrimination in online marketplaces, suggesting an important unintended consequence of a seemingly routine mechanism for building trust," the study said.
The study's authors said they looked at Airbnb because it is one of the top online services and prominently features photos of users. Other services, such as eBay and Craigslist, do not include such photos.
Also, unlike eBay and Craiglist, users on Airbnb often interact with each other. It is not uncommon for a user to stay at a place while the property owner is there too.
"We understand that pictures help guests accept the Airbnb model, including staying in a property with, or offered by, a stranger," the study said. "Forgoing host pictures would likely reduce some guests' willingness to use Airbnb."
The San Francisco startup responded to the study by pointing out that the information is outdated by two years and only looks at one of Airbnb's 35,000 cities. The company said it is committed to diversity.
"We are committed to making Airbnb the most open, trusted, diverse, transparent community in the world and our Terms of Service prohibit content that discriminates," Airbnb told tech website Recode.
Airbnb has not announced any plans to make changes to the way members list their properties.