BY RUTH READER
Soon after Donald Trump issued the first iteration of his disputed ban on travel from six predominantly Muslim countries—a move critics said would adversely affect refugees from war-torn Syria—the founders of Airbnb announced a bold plan to provide short-term housing over the next five years for 100,000 people in need.
After a series of tweets critical of the president, the trio of founders in early February made their pledge under the #WeAccept hashtag, declaring: “To help people around the world facing displacement, we’ll work with our community of hosts to find not just a place to stay, but also a place to feel connected, respected, and a part of a community again.”
Today, Airbnb revealed how it’ll meet the ambitious goal with the launch of its Open Homes platform. Now, Airbnb will automatically be able to connect organizations like the International Rescue Committee, Singa Quebec, Inland Refugee Society of British Columbia, and SolidarityNow with available rooms. In all, seven nonprofits are linked into the new platform.
Open Homes connects organizations seeking short-term stays and volunteers offering up their homes for a specific cause. When volunteers sign on, they’ll be able to specify the cause they’d like to donate their room or home to. Nonprofits looking to set up a family or individual for a few days or weeks while they suss out more permanent housing will be able to view lists of potential volunteers. The new platform automates much of the work that Airbnb has been doing manually up until this point.
Airbnb began offering up homes to refugees in the wake of President Trump’s still-blocked travel ban, which the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled “drips with religious intolerance, animus, and discrimination.” The short-term rental giant was doing much of the work of connecting nonprofit organizations with volunteers through a hacked together system of emails, phone calls, spreadsheets.
“Dozens of man hours to settle one family in one place,” Airbnb cofounder Joe Gebbia tells Fast Company. “Highly inefficient and highly unscalable.”
ROOTS IN HURRICANE SANDY
The work to connect displaced persons with housing began five years ago, amid the tumult of Hurricane Sandy. An Airbnb host asked if it was possible for her to house people left stranded by the storm surge for free. Gebbia says that request initiated a hackathon of sorts to allow Airbnb hosts to accept a guest without taking credit card information. It was the beginning of what would become Airbnb’s now global platform for connecting people in need with short-term shelter.
Since then a small team operating out of Samara, Airbnb’s design studio, has assembled a platform much like the original one for connecting travelers with accommodations. The group has grown from 3 people in January to 12.
Airbnb’s overall efforts have placed 1,900 people worldwide, including around U.S. cities such as Denver, Dallas, New York, Oakland, and Sacramento. Since the beginning of the year, it has placed some 290 refugees. The numbers are low compared with the 65 million people the IRC says are displaced, but the Open Homes platform is expected to accelerate the matching process.
Airbnb already has a large base of 3.5 million homes it can tap into and issues alerts as needed to compel hosts to support displaced people during natural disasters and other disruptions. Its ability to leverage its base becomes greater when it has software that can do the heavy lifting for it.
Furthermore, Open Homes is built to be anticipatory—meaning it could help organizations more readily reach open homes as necessary rather than waiting for disaster to strike. For now, the platform will focus on connecting refugees or those left homeless because of a terrorist act or natural disaster with hosts. Eventually, Gebbia would like to open this up to other populations in need of temporary housing.
“Any group that could benefit from short-term housing, we’ve designed this in a way that we can expand,” says Gebbia. He also thinks that Open Houses will appeal to non-Airbnb hosts who are socially minded. Of the 6,000 active volunteers who have come on board since February, half were not previously renting their home on Airbnb, says Gebbia.
By creating the platform, Airbnb is not only creating a way to scale, it’s also sidestepping the arduous task of matching those left bereft by unfortunate circumstances with generous families. Early critics of the refugee program were skeptical of Airbnb’s ability to pair refugees with spare bedrooms, because the process is complex and the company has no experience doing so. But under this model, Airbnb is simply connecting home donors with the organizations that need stopgap placement for the displaced populations with whom they work.
While many major tech firms have philanthropic arms or endeavors, something about Open Homes feels substantially different. It’s neither tethered to a foundation nor stands to help bring more revenue-generating customers on the platform. Gebbia says this is how he thinks 21st-century corporate philanthropy should look.
“We’re writing the checks to help others solve the problems,” says Gebbia, whose company has agreed to donate $4 million to the IRC over the next four years, “and we’re actually applying our own talent and expertise to solve for these issues.”
Published on Fast Company on June 7, 2017.