Displaced by Disaster? Airbnb Wants to Help

The home-sharing service is launching a 'Global Disaster Relief' program.

(Photo: UGardner/Flickr)

Jul 30, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Abigail Higgins is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya and New York City. She has written for Al Jazeera, The Boston Globe, and The Times of London on women's rights, global health, and development.

Disaster relief and bed-and-breakfasts don’t usually go hand in hand.

But when Hurricane Sandy drove thousands from their homes in the New York City area in 2012, Airbnb—the wildly popular service that enables people to rent out their houses or spare rooms—adapted its website to let users offer up their homes for free. More than 1,400 stepped up. On Tuesday, Airbnb announced it will build on that experience to help with disaster relief through partnerships with the cities of Portland, Ore., and San Francisco. The West Coast is only the beginning: Airbnb aims to go worldwide, and it's looking for someone to head a new "Global Disaster Relief" program.

“Emergency housing is an incredibly complex problem to solve, but our community is amazingly generous and spans across 192 countries around the world,” wrote Nathan Blecharczyk, cofounder and CTO of Airbnb, in a blog post last year. (Airbnb declined to comment for this article.)

Does a program’s success in New York City have any bearing on whether it will be effective in Haiti or Indonesia?

When it comes to aid, generosity alone isn't always enough. The overwhelming majority of people displaced by disasters live in the developing world. Sandy displaced some 775,000 people; that’s a fraction of the 32.4 million people around the world who had to flee natural disasters that same year. Resettlement in these countries involves a host of factors an American start-up may not anticipate.

“In a low-income environment, say Bangladesh or the Philippines, those affected by disasters aren’t living in an urban center with a good salary, an Internet connection, and stable housing. Those who are most affected tend to be on the other end of the spectrum,” said Graham Saunders, head of the shelter program at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Outsiders often don’t realize that communities are already solving their own problems in emergencies. That can make foreign aid redundant or worse, disrupt local solutions.

“There is already a kind of Airbnb service that works informally,” Saunders said. For instance, in the Philippines, which is hit with an average of 20 typhoons a year, networks of extended family members help each other.

Airbnb’s 800,000 listings around the world aren't a resource to scoff at. But what happens at the end of an Airbnb stay when people have nowhere to go?

“Most people who need to leave their homes because of war or disaster don’t have anything,” said David Alarcon, a spokesperson for the International Medical Corps.

Three years after the earthquake in Haiti, 146,573 people were still living in camps. Six months after Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, more than 2 million people didn't have adequate shelter. It’s not hard to imagine problems arising like that of a California woman who is enmeshed in a legal nightmare with an Airbnb tenant who refuses to leave her Palm Springs condo.

Moreover, the exact people this program is out to help may be the ones most at risk.

“When people are displaced, they're financially vulnerable, they’re emotionally vulnerable,” said Sean Casey, a humanitarian aid worker working on emergency response in the Philippines. “They could be taken advantage of, economically or sexually.”

“This is where we need dialogue,” said Saunders, “to think things through a little bit more to ensure that all the positives that this program can bring aren’t compromised by some of these concerns.”

That way, the innovation of a fresh-faced California start-up can inform, rather than impede, the efforts of long-standing industry players—and more important, help the people they both serve.