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Airbnb tests new ways to unlock doors during disasters

After the devastating fire that tore through London’s Grenfell Tower a month ago, leaving at least 80 people dead or missing, local homeowners listed on Airbnb opened their doors to put up humanitarian workers aiding the hundreds affected by the blaze that gutted the 24-storey tower block.

Determined to capitalise on its global network of 3 million short-term renters to help out in disasters and displacement crises, the online lodgings marketplace is working with city authorities around the world to improve emergency preparation and response, as well as provide free housing for refugees.

Kellie Bentz, Airbnb’s head of global disaster response and relief, told a video discussion on Wednesday that the company has to adapt what it can offer to the context of each disaster.


With Grenfell, that meant not offering temporary accommodation to families whose homes were destroyed in the fire.

“Moving survivors from one place to the next, to the next is the last thing you want to do when they’ve just lost everything and they have been through this very traumatic event,” Bentz told the webinar hosted by Zilient, a network for resilience practitioners. “Where we landed was helping… the Red Cross come in, and supporting them through our Airbnb accommodation.”

Airbnb is one of a growing number of businesses looking to bolster the ability of cities to cope with manmade disasters such as the Grenfell Tower fire, as well as natural hazards like earthquakes, floods and storms.

Partnering with the private sector from the outset when finding ways to make cities better prepared to tackle shocks and longer-term stresses is crucial, said Michael Berkowitz, president of the 100 Resilient Cities initiative, backed by The Rockefeller Foundation.

“In every disaster, the private sector is massively and inextricably involved,” said Berkowitz. “The question is: Are they involved in a joined-up way with government and civil society authorities?”

“The private sector has so much more to add by way of expertise, and technical know-how and facilities and resource.”



San Francisco-based Airbnb, which first enabled its hosts to lodge relief workers and evacuees when Hurricane Sandy hit New York in 2012, is now working with emergency management authorities to ensure its members have plans in place ahead of disasters.

It also runs online training programmes with aid agencies like the Red Cross, and its network of more than 100 sharing clubs offers a forum for hosts to meet local disaster experts.

With listings in over 65,000 cities, Airbnb can also be a “megaphone” for disseminating information from the emergency services and a direct connection to people visiting an area when a disaster strikes, said Bentz.

“It’s just a matter of education, information – and cities… realising they can’t do it on their own,” she said.

Airbnb, which last month launched a platform enabling hosts to offer space to refugees and evacuees, has set a goal to provide free short-term accommodation for 100,000 people over five years, and is working with refugee support programmes in countries such as Canada, France and Italy.

In the United States, it aims to supply short-term “gap” housing for refugees when they first arrive in the country, while in Paris, authorities are looking to the company to help lodge refugees for up to six months, said Bentz.

Those needing a place to stay are matched up with hosts via approved aid agencies, including the International Rescue Committee – and these organisations are requesting housing for periods of several months, said Bentz.

Most Airbnb hosts might only be able to donate a few nights here and there, she noted. But others are willing to provide longer-term accommodation that helps displaced people become established in new places – and Airbnb can contribute the mechanism to match supply and demand, said Bentz.

“What we believe is there is actually this other marketplace out there of hosts that just want to host for good, that just want to host for causes,” she said.