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Lieselot has been renting out her Belgian seaside apartment for almost a year now through Airbnb. Her next guests: Ukrainian refugees fleeing a Russian invasion.
“I would cancel a booking for it,” she told POLITICO on the phone.
Lieselot is one of more than 36,000 hosts who have signed up through Airbnb to offer to house Ukrainian refugees fleeing war. The U.S.-based short-term rental platform on February 28 launched one of the largest-ever private initiatives for refugees, pledging to house up to 100,000 Ukrainians.
Airbnb’s undertaking would rival the efforts of some EU member countries if it meets its goal. But while local aid groups said they welcomed Airbnb’s initiative, they also stressed it would take a long time for the company to meet its goals, and that careful vetting of potential hosts was crucial for the safety of refugees.
HIAS, a Jewish refugee organization with which Airbnb partners in Poland, said it would take time to ramp up matchmaking between refugees and hosts. Reaching Airbnb’s upper target of housing 100,000 people — a fraction of the more than 2.5 million Ukrainians who have fled the war — will take months to reach.
Even if the full number obtains housing, Airbnb is a short-term solution. One of Airbnb’s former partners, the International Rescue Committee, said that it used the Airbnb partnership during the Afghan war “to help house newly arrived families while permanent [housing] is being finalized.”
Airbnb was quick to offer its services, with CEO Brian Chesky announcing his pledge just four days after Russia launched its invasion.
In the two weeks that followed, data shared with POLITICO shows that more than 21,500 new hosts registered with the platform to offer free housing through Airbnb.org, a nonprofit arm of the company that was established in 2020.
Airbnb.org, which got a test run after NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, allows hosts to offer their services to refugees by specifying what type of guests and how many people they can accommodate and how long they will be able to offer housing for. While some hosts already offer housing on Airbnb for a profit, others are only seeking to take in refugees or disaster victims.
Jan Deruyck, a host who lives in Portugal, belongs to the second group. He signed up on Airbnb.org on March 7, after hearing Chesky’s pledge to help Ukrainian refugees. “We have a space in our home, completely separate, you can live there undisturbed. If there are people who make it to Portugal, I see no reason not to do so,” Jan told POLITICO.
Under Airbnb.org’s commitment, refugees who get assigned housing through the platform are promised 14 days of free housing. But while it’s free for them, some hosts will still make some money. Airbnb.org invites them to post their housing at a discount to the commercial price and Airbnb subsidizes the stay, bringing the cost down to zero for the refugees.
While it’s unclear how many stays will be subsidized, the company has lined up its Refugee Fund, launched in 2021, to support its effort. Airbnb’s co-founder Joe Gebbia pitched in $5 million through a donation to kick off the fund, with the aim to reach $25 million.
For people who are not able to offer accommodation, Airbnb.org allows them to donate money to refugees. On March 4 and 5, Airbnb’s nonprofit arm received $1.2 million in direct individual donations, according to data shared with POLITICO.
Celebrity fundraising is also helping to increase the amount available for refugees. Actor Mila Kunis — who was born in Ukraine — and her husband Ashton Kutcher have already raised more than $21 million out of a total goal of $30 million after a week and a half. Kunis and Kutcher contributed $3 million while tech venture capitalist Ron Conway donated $2.5 million.
Finding a home
Behind the scenes of Airbnb’s refugee initiative, there is a vast logistics challenge involving outreach to governments around the conflict areas and local NGOs that can match the needs of refugees with the offerings on Airbnb’s platform.
After announcing its goal, Airbnb reached out to the governments in Germany, Poland, Romania and Hungary in order to better understand their needs. It also struck a deal with the U.N.’s migration agency to match refugees to short-term housing in Poland, Moldova, Romania, Hungary and Slovakia. The company has also formed a partnership with the Jewish aid association HIAS, which has teams on the ground in Poland working to assist refugees.
But for organizations like HIAS to operate, coordination on the ground is much needed, Jessica Reese, vice president of institutional development at HIAS, told POLITICO. “Humanitarian coordination is being set up, but it’s still not quite clear yet. When any Ukrainian refugee comes to the border, they should be able to say: This NGO is providing this service, this NGO is providing food, etc.”
HIAS, however, has moved ahead and has already been vetting a local NGO in Poland that will be part of the emergency response and will match refugees with offerings onto the Airbnb.org platform. “Say, for example, a family of six presents itself to HIAS or to our partner. We’re able to go onto Airbnb’s platform and match up this family, their size and whatever their specific vulnerabilities are, with whatever accommodation is on the platform.”
The local NGO, which Reese declined to name because vetting is still ongoing, has already been offering shelter, but its technical and personal capacity will be drastically increased to be able to take on the Airbnb project. “Right now they’re matching Ukrainians — they have a local offer of accommodation. What we’re about to do with the Airbnb platform, is scale it up times a thousand,” Reese said.
Once the local partnership is up and running — which Reese said should take a week — HIAS should be able to match 10 to 30 families a day to short-term accommodation. Other nonprofit organizations, active in Poland or other countries, will likely be added later to beef up the response. In Germany, Airbnb last week struck a deal with the interior ministry and Unterkunft-Ukraine, a platform that had brought together more than 140,000 hosts.
Vetting the hosts
The Afghan crisis in 2021, however, showed that there’s a difference between setting a target and meeting it. On August 24, 2021, Chesky tweeted that the company would offer free housing to 20,000 Afghan refugees globally. That target was finally met on February 22 of the following year.
Why set such an ambitious goal if it’s only met when everyone else has largely moved on to the next crisis? Reese is still convinced it’s the right thing to do: “It’s good that they set this high target for influencing other corporate partners.”
But while Airbnb’s commitment was welcomed by other nonprofit organizations with experience in housing, they also stressed the importance of carefully vetting hosts participating in the scheme.
A speedy or nonexistent vetting for refugee hosts could potentially endanger the guests, some have said, without specifically criticizing Airbnb. “You can imagine horrible stuff that happens to refugees who are picked up at the border by people,” Robert Zaal, manager of Takecarebnb, a Dutch organization that matches refugees with host families for three months.
It’s one of the reasons why Takecarebnb conducts lengthy intake interviews with both hosts and refugees before matching. “We try to offer an alternative, an organized process, both for host and refugee,” Zaal told POLITICO. In Ghent, Belgium, authorities also have said they would vet people offering shelter before matching them up with refugees.
Airbnb’s registration process for hosts is much shorter. Host Jan said it took him about “10 to 15 minutes” to register on Airbnb.org. Reese agreed that hosts taking advantage of or mistreating refugees was a “definite risk,” but added that her colleagues were prepared to increase security for refugees during the booking process. “Staff are trained to put everything through a risk-mitigation lens, in terms of how they book.”
Another concern is how Airbnb’s offering — with stays up to 14 days — can help refugees in the long haul. “[Booking] an Airbnb is most of the time for a weekend or a week. But in this case, we don’t know how long these people will need shelter. It can be months,” Zaal said.
When asked by POLITICO how Airbnb.org works, how it’s funded, how it worked with NGOs and how the vetting process worked, Airbnb did not comment but offered a short statement instead.
“Airbnb.org is offering free, short-term housing to up to 100,000 refugees fleeing Ukraine. We know that Hosts and guests on Airbnb around the world are eager to stand up and assist during this moment of crisis, and Airbnb.org continues to work closely with governments and civil society partners to best support the specific needs in each country.”
It’s a pitch that hosts like Lieselot and Jan are ready to live up to. “This is only an interim solution,” Jan said.
This article has been updated.
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