Airbnb, a website that allows users to rent out their homes and apartments, is improving its ability to help people in need of housing during a disaster.
The company announced at the end of July that it has entered into partnerships with San Francisco, California, and Portland, Oregon to help streamline disaster response in the two communities. The company will identify hosts willing to offer free housing for those in need and offer free booking services on its website.
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Airbnb host Shell, who rents out her Brooklyn loft, decided to open her doors to stranded and displaced New Yorkers without charging a penny. More than 1,400 others followed her lead.
Airbnb hosts around the city offered free rentals for those affected by the storm. Airbnb, inspired by users’ generosity, waived its rental fees in areas impacted by the storm and encouraged its hosts to consider discounting their rentals. The experience prompted Airbnb to formalize its disaster response initiatives.
"We’re still in the early stages of working with Airbnb," Dan Douthit, public information officer at the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management, told The Huffington Post. "We see this partnership as a way of making Portland much more resilient in a disaster, and an important opportunity to work closely with the private sector for the benefit of the community."
Portland also shared the city's geographic data on threats to different locations with Airbnb, Douthit said. This data, including flood plains and earthquake potential, will allow Airbnb to map which of its hosts are near potential hazards.
The most likely scenario in which Portland would rely on the agreement would be an earthquake, Douthit said, but fires, flooding or even a volcanic eruption are among the many situations in which people could be displaced and need emergency housing.
163,000 shelter stays were provided across the East Coast during and after Hurricane Sandy by a range of organizations, according to the Red Cross. But shelters can easily become crowded and uncomfortable. By helping residents open their own homes to others in their community, Airbnb has the potential to make tough times more bearable.
“We were blessed, we didn’t have any damages,” said Evelyn, a host from Brooklyn, in an Airbnb video on Sandy. “We just made sure everybody was safe, everybody was comfortable, and we just made cookies, chili and margaritas.”
Not only will Airbnb help house displaced people, they plan to distribute information on disasters and recovery efforts through their networks. They will also educate hosts to make them as prepared as possible for a disaster situation. Douthit told HuffPost that Portland hopes to provide emergency response training to hosts and instruct them on retrofitting their buildings to be more earthquake ready.
Airbnb has faced legal challenges from cities that do not allow short-term rentals or protest that Airbnb users are skirting hotel taxes. In New York City, for example, it is illegal for residents of multiunit buildings to rent out their apartments for less than 30 days, unless they are also living in the apartment at the time. Despite this, many New York Airbnb listings offer private apartments for rent by the night.
Portland, however, cleared up the issue earlier this summer by passing legislation to allow short-term rentals, as long as those renting their apartments follow certain rules and restrictions. San Francisco is moving to pass a similar ordinance, which could be voted on as early as September.
Airbnb’s video on its hosts' response to Hurricane Sandy offers a glimpse at what these partnerships could mean for people displaced by a disaster. Check it out below: