Yvette Hobzek, a Seattle-area real estate broker, filed suit against vacation rental company HomeAway on Monday, alleging racial discrimination.
Hobzek, a 49-year-old African-American woman, claims she was barred from booking accommodations through HomeAway-owned VRBO because of her race. The proposed class action suit accuses the company of violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which “explicitly prohibits discrimination in places of public accommodation, such as hotels, motels, restaurants, movie theatres and sports arenas.”
Hobzek’s lawyers claim that, as a public lodging company, HomeAway falls into that category. Hobzek is also suing for several other discrimination-related counts, including violation of the Fair Housing Act.
HomeAway, which is owned by Bellevue, Wash.-based Expedia, declined to comment on any pending litigation.
Here’s what happened, according to the complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas.
In June, Hobzek tried to book a townhouse on VRBO so that her family could visit her mother in New York City. The property owner required Hobzek to identify herself and provide reasons for visiting in her VRBO booking form.
Update: The language above has been edited to clarify the property owner’s role in setting booking requirements for renters.
Hobzek didn’t hear back and the property remained available on VRBO, so she tried using the site’s “instant book” feature and submitted payment for the stay. The property agent responded and said the unit was unavailable.
The townhouse remained open on the site. Hobzek complained to VRBO and the company’s customer service rep told her to contact the property agent directly. She called the agent and explained that she was facing roadblocks when she tried to book. The agent allegedly said he knew who she was and that he did not rent to “[her] kind,” according to the complaint:
Hobzek immediately told Defendants’ agent that he could not reject her because of her race. However, the agent stated that he could do whatever he wanted to because he was the designated agent for the townhome property listed on Defendants’ accommodations website. Hobzek immediately hung up and contacted Defendants’ corporate offices.
As the days went on, the townhouse remained available on VRBO. Hobzek filed a formal complaint with the company, alleging racial discrimination.
A few weeks later, Hobzek saw a targeted ad from VRBO, which featured the townhouse she was unable to book, adding salt to the wound. That day, she reached out to VRBO again and they told her homeowners and property agents are encouraged to use Facebook for “background checks” on prospective renters.
“Subsequently and without coincidence, Ms. Hobzek would see Defendants’ agent appear on her Facebook page as a potential ‘friend’ as a result of Facebook’s data algorithms,” the complaint says.
Because she didn’t stay at the townhouse, Hobzek wasn’t able to leave a review to share her experience with the agent. Hobzek’s lawyers claim that hers is not an isolated experience and are seeking class-action status for the case.
The lawsuit comes on the heels of a high-profile racism controversy involving HomeAway’s chief rival, Airbnb. Over the past year, the home sharing site’s would-be users have been sharing stories of racial discrimination on social media with the hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack. The buzz made national headlines, pressuring Airbnb to act. Last week the San Francisco-based company issued new anti-discrimination rules. Airbnb also announced a new ‘Open Door’ policy to help people who believe prejudice prevented them from booking — as Hobzek alleges — find alternative accommodations.
HomeAway has not followed Airbnb’s lead but the site’s Terms and Conditions do note that members are responsible for “compliance with all anti-discrimination and fair housing laws, as applicable.”
By its own admission, Airbnb was “slow on this issue.” HomeAway, Hobzek’s complaint says, is even slower.
“At all times pertinent to this action Defendants have not put in place policies and procedures to address grievances and complaints of racial discrimination brought by its customers against its agents, representatives, servants, or brokers which has resulted into a continuous cycle flouting fundamental civil rights laws.”
Read the full complaint below.