(Photo courtesy of the Turners)
Kristin Turner’s first few months as an Airbnb host had gone off without a hitch. She and her husband had purchased a home in Austin, Texas, in 2022 as a place to stay when they commuted into the city to work at a downtown trauma center, where they are both nurses. Turner, 41, and her husband are both Austin natives, but they normally live with their son on a family farm outside the city that has been passed down within her husband’s family for decades. “It's a great life, but we commute a lot,” she said. To make the constant travel more bearable, they started to look into buying a home in Austin proper, but found the housing prices too high for them to afford on their own.
“So we said, ‘Well, let's look into buying a house in Austin as a place that we can stay part time and rent out other times,’” she said. In July, they closed on a three-bedroom home, planning to put it on short-term rental sites like Airbnb. One month later, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky said recruiting more hosts was the company’s top priority as it tried to meet demand for rental properties and reduce nightly costs. The company regularly advertises the benefits of putting one’s home on the platform. To make the home more appealing to potential renters, the Turners fixed it up and built an elaborate guest book that took advantage of their knowledge as Austin locals. It was a sizable investment of time and money, but by the fall, the plan appeared to be working. “Things were going really well,” she said. “I had bookings coming in daily.”Then, one night last October, Turner received an email that changed everything. It was from a member of the Airbnb team who identified herself only as “Eleanor,” saying that the company had decided to remove her from the platform not because of her own behavior, but because her account had been “closely associated with a person who isn’t allowed to use Airbnb.”
Airbnb was doing this for the “safety of our community,” Eleanor said.
Turner was shocked and devastated. Soon enough, all her home’s bookings had been deleted and she could not get into her account. The potential consequences were clear. She had purchased a home on the idea that she would rent it out to help cover the mortgage, and now the company that dominated the short-term rental market had suddenly and permanently banned her from doing so. Immediately, she began to fear that her family would face financial ruin. She didn’t sleep for the rest of the night.For a decade now, Airbnb has had background checks performed on its users in hopes of making the platform as safe as possible for both hosts and guests. The checks, which are carried out by a third-party service that claims to complete them on average in less than a second, have been criticized for their arbitrary nature as people fight bans for infractions as small as not keeping a dog leashed, or, in Turner’s case, knowing the wrong people.
Hoping to overturn the ban, Turner wrote back to ask for additional information, but Eleanor replied only to say the company had given her “case and its details careful consideration” and was unwilling to reverse the decision or even offer “additional support.”Turner’s responses became increasingly desperate. “Please give me an opportunity to appeal this,” Turner responded in turn. “There has been a misunderstanding. In no way was there any attempt to misrepresent myself or any information. I have had a guest account for many years and have hosted for a short time with no issues.”Airbnb had not provided her with the association that had led to the ban, so she was left to try and piece together what had happened herself. Recently, she had tried to help her 70-year-old mother, Janet, and her mother’s partner, Carl, find a new place to stay after their landlord revealed plans to renovate the building and push renters out.
Janet, who lives on a fixed income and has a disability, was having trouble finding a new place. The week she had to leave, Turner suggested they look on Airbnb for a month-long rental. While at the hospital visiting a family member, Turner decided to set up an account for them. Because Janet didn’t have her ID on her, Turner set up the account under Carl’s name, using his phone, email, and ID information. Shortly afterward, Carl received an email informing him that he was not allowed to be an Airbnb user because of information that had surfaced on a background check. The report, which Motherboard reviewed, showed that Carl had been convicted of two non-violent offenses in 2015 and 2016—theft and drug possession, which Turner said she had been unaware of. Hoping to help, Turner decided to book a place to stay with her mom, saying she would stay with her and help her out until they found a permanent solution.
The night she was banned, Turner tried to explain the details of the situation to Airbnb, saying there was “no attempt at misrepresentation” or “deceit.” She felt as if she had done nothing wrong and been unfairly banned as a result of what she viewed as a “glitch” in Airbnb’s system, she told Motherboard. “I fully intended to uphold any AirBnb rules as I am a host and would not risk that status,” she told Airbnb over email. “Please please give me the opportunity to appeal this. It is a matter of misunderstanding. This could financially ruin our family.”Hours later, Eleanor responded once more, saying that the company considered factors like her location and email address in making the decision and would not be reversing the decision. “Our review is complete now, and we won’t be able to offer additional support on this case at this time,” Eleanor added. It had been less than 24 hours since the initial email.
“Can I create a new account? What is my recourse?” Turner replied. “I have done nothing wrong and this will devastate our financial state. We have put everything we have into our host home and worked very hard to establish our rating and reputation. We are honest people.”“Please allow me to speak with somebody,” she added. “Please reconsider this decision.”Airbnb has told Motherboard in the past that it knows “no background check system is perfect,” and that it continually tries to make the system “as effective and thoughtful as possible,” including through the appeals process Turner was attempting to use.
But the large-scale and robotic nature of the appeals process—and the replies users receive from customer service representatives like “Eleanor”—can make people like Turner feel they have little room to discuss the nuances of their situation, particularly when they have been banned because of their association with another user. Even though the consequences of the ban were potentially enormous, Turner could not figure out a way to discuss the issue over the phone with “an actual human” on the right team. When she called customer service, the representatives said bans had to be handled by a specific department, but that they would forward her concern along. She only ever heard back by email, and the responses that she did receive felt automated and often repeated phrases word for word. Airbnb would not even say definitively who Turner had been associated with, only that it was enough to kick her off. The company told Motherboard that the Airbnb representatives are human “Community Support ambassadors,” not chatbots.For guests, a ban can be an inconvenience. But for hosts like Turner, the stakes can be much higher. Airbnb’s domination of the market means a robotic ban from the platform is essentially a ban from a large swath of the short-term rental market. Lost income is all but assured. With time, Turner’s panic turned to anger. “I have not had a fair opportunity to defend myself or disprove this erroneous allegation,” she wrote in an email to the company in November. She demanded to know which terms of service she had specifically violated and sent complaints to the Better Business Bureau and certified mail to Airbnb’s legal team demanding a formal appeal and resolution. She later demanded arbitration as well.
But the responses were always the same, sometimes word for word, always over email. In February, another Airbnb representative, Pasang Diki Sherpa, wrote to Turner, saying the company had received her formal demand letter, but that the company had given her “case and its details careful consideration” and would not be reactivating the account.“We understand that this might not be what you’d hoped for, but we came to this outcome because of safeguard our community and community standards,” Sherpa added. “I apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused.”
The ban, Turner said, proved to be more than an inconvenience. It became “absolutely life-changing,” causing her and her husband “horrific and traumatic stress,” she said. Austin housing prices have since dropped, meaning they’d take a large loss if they sold it. The stress caused Turner to drop out of a master’s program for a time.Turner could not help but see Airbnb’s current system as “flawed” and unfair to people who are “guilty by association” but have no criminal record of their own. “I am at a loss for how to protect myself or my rights against this corporate giant,” she told MotherboardIt was only after Motherboard reached out for comment about the specifics of Turner’s situation that Airbnb decided to reverse its decision and reinstate Turner. Airbnb told Motherboard that it had revisited Turner’s case and determined her association with her mother’s partner was “not close enough” to justify a ban. No new information was obtained.Such a series of events has become something of a pattern at Airbnb. A user is banned for a questionable and/or vague reason and then stifled by a customer service representative like “Eleanor” who offers a series of boilerplate explanations. Unable to reach a human with power, they are only reinstated after reaching out to a reporter or going public with their story.Even those lucky enough to find their cases resolved through Airbnb’s outsourcing of customer service work to reporters aren’t necessarily made whole.“The pain and suffering,” Turner said, “you know, you can't put a dollar amount on that.”