In Harlem in the nineteen-twenties, black tenants would sometimes cram guests into their apartments, serve them food and drink, hire a musician to play boogie-woogie on the piano, and use the money they collected at the door to pay their rent for the month. In "Blues People," published in 1963, the cultural critic Amiri Baraka describes these "rent parties" as a sort of acclimatization ritual, whereby new arrivals from the Great Migration, typically from the rural South, "improvised" their way into Northern urban society. But I also like to think of them as examples of the resourcefulness that can frequently be found in black communities, where material resources haven't always been plentiful. After the extension of the Eighth Avenue subway line into Brooklyn, in 1933, many black families from Harlem sought refuge on the tree-lined streets and in the well-appointed brownstones across the East River. There, in spite of the banks, creditors, and government agencies that conspired against them, they became homeowners.
Traces of this striving black middle class are still present, but they are fading. In the Bedford section of Bedford-Stuyvesant, the black cultural capital of Brooklyn since the early nineteenth century, African-Americans have become a minority for the first time in more than fifty years. From 2000 to 2010, the white population in the area increased six hundred and thirty-three per cent. Meanwhile, across the country, the homeownership rate among African-Americans has been steadily falling. Last year, it dropped below forty-two per cent for the first time in twenty years. (For whites, the rate is around seventy-two per cent.) How have Brooklyn's remaining black homeowners made ends meet? Some, particularly older, college-educated retirees, have cashed out and returned to the South, part of a trend that researchers have called the New Great Migration. Others have retreated farther east into Brooklyn, where home prices are cheaper. And then there are those who have turned to Airbnb, the popular home-sharing platform that launched in 2008, and is perhaps a modern version of the improvisation that Baraka wrote about.
Johari James, thirty-three, owns a modest two-story building on Sumpter Street, in Ocean Hill, a small subsection of Bed-Stuy. A self-employed communications technician, James first started using Airbnb as a host two years ago. At the time, he had just been laid off from his job, and a friend recommended that he use the site to get back on his feet. A few weeks ago, I visited James, riding my bike from Clinton Hill and watching as the brownstones along Decatur Street went from spruced-up to deteriorating. When I arrived, he took me upstairs to his apartment, where we sat at a coffee table near a bay window facing the street. Two tenants had moved into the first floor over the summer, he said, but he has frequently hosted Airbnb renters both there and in his own space. James's guests are usually tourists from France or Italy, sometimes South Korea or China. He has used the supplemental income—around fifteen thousand dollars a year, well above the seventy-five hundred that Airbnb has said a typical New York City host earns—to travel and help cover the mortgage on his building, which he inherited when his mother died, of breast cancer, in 2014.
You wouldn't expect to find many tourists, or, for that matter, gentrifiers, in a place like Ocean Hill. It is adjacent to Brownsville, which in 2014 was dubbed the city's murder capital by New York magazine. This August, the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness determined that ten per cent of students in the Department of Education's District 23, which includes Ocean Hill, are living in shelters. Still, like much of the surrounding area, the neighborhood is changing. Fifteen years ago, most of James's block was empty lots and abandoned buildings. Recently, though, a developer bought the home next door, after the previous owner died, evicting the squatters who lived there and beginning a gut renovation. For the most part, James said, Ocean Hill's reputation doesn't dissuade prospective Airbnb guests. He's had problems on only a handful of occasions, like the time a Frenchman called to cancel his stay, late one night, because his girlfriend was too afraid to walk to James's front door from the subway. In that case, because of James's strict cancellation policy, he was able to keep the couple's full fee, and he rebooked a new guest within twenty-four hours.
James's successes with Airbnb are, in many ways, unusual. In January of 2014, two researchers at Harvard Business School, Benjamin Edelman and Michael Luca, released a working paper on the site's problems with racial discrimination. They calculated that nonblack Airbnb hosts charge approximately twelve per cent more, on average, than black hosts—roughly a hundred and forty-four dollars per night, versus a hundred and seven. In addition, Edelman and Luca found that profile photos, which many users hope will help them project trustworthiness during a transaction, have the unintended effect of facilitating prejudice. In other words, black hosts earn less money for renting their homes, and black renters have a harder time finding accommodation. The paper helped spawn a Twitter hashtag, #airbnbwhileblack. A typical story might involve a renter who is told that the room she planned to book is suddenly unavailable, only to find it relisted for the same dates shortly thereafter, presumably for someone who is white.
In response to these criticisms, Airbnb hired dozens of consultants and legal advisers, and developed a series of new tactics for rooting out discrimination, which are described in a report released on September 8th. Some of the measures include minimizing the prominence of user photos (a suggestion that came from the Harvard paper), ramping up instant bookings that don't require host approval, and having users agree to a new "community commitment." In Brooklyn, James said, Airbnb sometimes sponsors road races, town-hall-style meetings, and other social events, apparently to build this sense of community. But the report also acknowledged that there is no one "product change, policy, or modification that can eliminate bias and discrimination," noting that these forces have been "regrettable parts of society for centuries." Silicon Valley's disrupt-or-perish mandate assumes that technology will lead us to a better future, but so far it has done little to help us reconcile with the past. "A lot of times, the opportunities are there for people of color," James said. "But we don't necessarily think those opportunities are for us." Indeed, two groups of black entrepreneurs have founded competitors to Airbnb, with the goal of catering more explicitly to people of color. The companies are called Noirbnb and Innclusive.
Airbnb has also been fighting charges that it distorts New York's housing economy, often to the detriment of lower-income residents. ShareBetter, a coalition of elected officials and affordable-housing advocates, has argued that, by allowing landlords to turn their properties into ersatz hotels, the company is costing the city tax revenue, driving up rents, and depriving New Yorkers of vacant apartments. (ShareBetter receives funding from the New York Hotel Trades Council, a local union of hotel workers.) The day before the report on discrimination came out, the company's policy arm, Airbnb Action, released what it called "comprehensive data" about its operations in the city. It claimed that ninety-six per cent of New York hosts have only one listing—that they're not extortionate commercial agents but people like James. It also argued that the income it provides can help save hosts from eviction or foreclosure in some of the city's poorest neighborhoods. "Hosts and local small-business owners frequently tell us that home sharing has helped their communities grow and thrive in the face of increasing gentrification," Josh Meltzer, Airbnb's New York head of public policy, told me.
But James, whose experience would seem to support this argument, doesn't entirely agree. By retaining ownership of his home, he said, he's able to act as a sort of "gatekeeper" for his neighborhood, but he also recognizes that, simply by inviting well-heeled visitors into Ocean Hill, he is helping turn what was once a community of black families into a tourist destination, and minimizing its heritage. "You start thinking about the cultural impact," James said. He frequently receives phone calls from anonymous agencies asking whether he's interested in selling his house. He is not, but he noted that many of his neighbors do not have the luxury of refusing. James summarized what he saw as Airbnb's position: "The rent is so high, but, instead of fighting to lower it, you can do this!"
"It's this backwards thing where you're helping yourself in a way, but you're also promoting gentrification," he said. "It's tiring."