After a wave of news articles about racial discrimination on Airbnb, two separate startups (with very similar names) are vying to be the go-to alternative for people of color.
Both sites come as Airbnb faces a lawsuit from a guest, Gregory Selden, who says his civil rights were violated when his reservation was canceled by an Airbnb host because he is black. It is illegal under the Fair Housing Act to deny someone housing because of their race, and Airbnb’s own discrimination policy states that clearly. The company has since publicly removed at least two hosts from the platform for discrimination and launched a new diversity recruiting initiative.
While the similarity between Noirbnb and Noirebnb is definitely confusing — the similar names are a coincidence — people on Twitter were nonetheless excited to hear about both launches:
Though neither platform has launched yet, Noirbnb’s founders, Stefan Grant and Ronnia Cherry, claim to have had the idea — and the name — first.
Both Cherry and Grant were staying at an Airbnb in Decatur, Georgia, with friends last fall when a neighbor who suspected them of robbing the house they were renting called the cops. Grant’s subsequent tweets and selfies went viral, and the pair went to Airbnb’s headquarters after emailing the company suggestions for how it could better combat racism on the platform.
“They opened their doors and ears to us but I don’t think it was as much a priority within the company as it was a priority with the people,” Cherry told BuzzFeed News. “That’s when we stepped in.”
Since then, with private backing from friends and family, Grant and Cherry have been working on Noirbnb, a web portal for black travelers that they see as much more than just Airbnb for black people. “From our design to our branding to our marketing,” said Cherry, “we want to make it clear that we’re not an Airbnb clone at all.”
Noirebnb, on the other hand, seems to have deliberately designed its homepage to recall Airbnb’s:
Rohan Gilkes, a startup founder himself, announced Noirebnb on Monday, just a few days after his blog post about being discriminated against by an Idaho Airbnb host went viral.
He says he came to both the idea and the name independently of Noirbnb. Gilkes said he’s been in touch with Grant and Cherry about the obvious overlap. All three confirmed that they’d like to work together in some capacity and that it makes sense to merge, but a compromise hasn’t yet been reached. “At one point he was ready to come on board and join forces, he was sending stuff about what a partnership would look like,” said Cherry. “And we’re open to it. But it needs to make sense.”
Despite being the latecomer, Gilkes told BuzzFeed News that his platform will be ready to launch in a few weeks. "The biggest challenge is going to be volume. We have a certain number of properties available in New York City, and then a certain number of people who want to visit New York City. Until those numbers look reasonable and there’s parity there, it will be difficult to get things moving.”
Like Cherry and Grant, Gilkes has been in touch with Airbnb. Though he contacted the company directly after the initial incident, he said it wasn’t until two weeks later, after the viral blog post, that he received a “super apologetic” phone call from an Airbnb customer support person. “He asked for my input and ideas about how they can better fight this problem,” said Gilkes. “It was a nice conversation, but I felt like it was a little too late. If that was the conversation I had gotten when I called the first time, I would never have made a Medium post, and we wouldn’t be here.”
He added that his sole suggestion for Airbnb — that they stop using profile pictures on the site to prevent racial profiling — was dismissed out of hand as impossible.
Both Noirbnb and Noirebnb will be open to people who aren’t black, and strive to be as welcoming as possible to all types of people. Grant believes marketing the site that way will discourage people with “any kind of prejudice” from wanting to join. Cherry said features that distinguish Noirbnb from Airbnb when it comes to matching guests and removing bias from the booking process will be announced soon.
Both sites are also open to outside funders.
While Noirebnb and Noirbnb seem like natural rivals at this stage, their real competition is Airbnb itself. As with Uber alternatives that promise to treat workers better or do away with surge pricing or be safer for women, the challenge isn’t just building the technology, but getting people to use it.
But Gilkes says Noirbnb’s Facebook likes went from zero to a thousand in just a few hours on Monday, which he takes as a sign that the #AirbnbWhileBlack movement has the momentum to provide a legitimate user base.
“My email is destroyed. My Twitter mentions are destroyed. It’s not going to be difficult,” he said. “People are fed up.”
Airbnb did not respond to request for comment.
After this article was published, Noirebnb changed its name to Inn'clusive.
Caroline O'Donovan is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.
Contact Caroline O’Donovan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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