Opening Hearts and Homes to Refugees: Airbnb

June 22nd, 2017

Airbnb – finding a place where you can belong

Airbnb recently announced a commitment to provide housing for 100,000 refugees over the next five years. Brian Chesky, CEO and Co-founder of Airbnb, explains why in the company statement about diversity: “At the heart of our mission is the idea that people are fundamentally good and every community is a place where you can belong.”

Cities of Migration spoke with Kellie Bentz, Head, Global Disaster Response & Relief, Airbnb, to find out more about their plans and how they’re implementing them.


Why is Airbnb getting involved with the global refugee crisis?

Kellie Bentz: Our mission is around belonging. Belonging and inclusion is something we feel is not only our mission, but is in our DNA. We want to build community around the world. The refugee crisis is a massive issue, and one that is quite divisive. There is quite a lot of misunderstanding around what the crisis is. Many people are fleeing war and conflict and coming into communities. There is a huge challenge around integration. We believe we can make a contribution and it’s our responsibility to do so by engaging our hosts and building a new marketplace and community of hosts who are willing and able to open their homes to newcomers in their community.


Describe Airbnb’s refugee housing program. What have been some of the outcomes for your refugees? What have been some of the outcomes for hosts?

Kellie Bentz: We’ve had 6000 hosts list their space, globally, on the refugee response. We’re still announcing country by country as we roll out. The breadth and depth of agency partnerships range from 100% volunteer led organizations such as Refugee Bienvenue in Paris to large organizations like the International Rescue Committee (IRC), which has 20 locations across the U.S. Working with that dynamic helps us understand the varied needs of those being displaced and the supports we can offer.

Our Disaster Response Program has been running since 2012, after Hurricane Sandy in New York, and has gotten more intensive over the past two years. We took what we’ve learned through those experiences to build this new program. One of the differences is that refugee serving agencies are able to see the hosts, the people offering free listings. Those listings are not available to the general public. They’re only bookable by verified agencies. That is one clear learning we took from the travel ban in the United States, and other responses around the globe.

We’ve seen a huge impact that we think can help with shifting general bias. For example, during the U.S. travel ban, one host in Denver hosted a family of refugees. Aribnb started to get more requests from their local partner, the IRC. This host went to her neighbours to ask them to host. People realized they could make an impact. Ultimately, these refugees se are just new people in our community and we should be welcoming them. That story has helped shape the narrative for Airbnb.


Where in the world do you think you’ll have the most impact? (in 2016 3+ million listings in 65,0000+ cities in 191 countries)

Kellie Bentz: We realize that country to country, and even city to city, things are unique.

We’re still in the learning process of understanding how our community reacts to this issue. Right now it’s been tremendously positive. We’ve had a lot of feedback from hosts like, “We’re glad Airbnb has stepped up to do this. We want to be part of it.” Our community is made up of hosts and guests. Guests may not be able to open their homes, but want to get engaged in the issue. So the other piece that we’re adding is Suppers With Us, where they can host dinners with refugees and refugee agencies to learn more about the topic.

The idea is to create a more integrated approach, knowing that if people’s education and knowledge level becomes greater, there is a greater likelihood that others will open their homes. We have hosts who have neighbours or friends they want to bring to a meet up to learn more, and they might open their home to refugees.

We’re still learning and trying to understand where we can have the greatest impact. We see the need to have an impact, both on the refugees family themselves, but also on the host communities that are opening their doors.  It’s hard to say where we’re going to make the most impact and also how to measure. Is it the number we want to measure, or the quality of the program we actually have, and impact on lives?

Geographically, we’re likely to have most impact in Europe and North America. We still have a lot of learning about how we might have an impact in the areas most affected by the refugee crisis, the Middle East and Africa.


How does it work?

Kellie Bentz: Many of the refugees are case managed through their asylum process, as well as resettlement and integration services in their new communities. Having a person on the agency side working directly with the hosts makes it much easier for the refugee. Because the host is communicating directly with people who have all the information, the connection is faster. It’s a bit of a shift from previous disaster responses.

In one country or city some of the agencies need more temporary or more emergency accommodation (1 night to a few weeks), whereas in Europe, we’re finding calls for longer term accommodation, such as one month. The program is flexible enough to allow hosts to open their homes for any duration. They choose the time frame and they work directly with agencies.

We’re trying to figure out all the tools and resources agencies and hosts need to make it as successful as possible without us hand-holding the whole process. We recognize that we need to play a more active role now, to make sure that we’re doing it right.


How do you work with local refugee serving organizations?

Kellie Bentz: Ideally we’re building a support solution for them, knowing the need for housing is one of the greatest issues for many of these agencies. We also recognize that we are one small piece of the puzzle. Agencies coming on board give us feedback on how we can improve the program, both locally and globally. They connect us with other agencies that are also dealing with similar housing issues, and help us understand how we can make the greatest impact and how we can get more people involved.

Many of these agencies have been dealing with these issues for a long time. We’re not trying to reinvent how they do things, just adding a support mechanism for them. They help us understand the differences in need and nuances in different cities for refugees and how we might build out our product to better support agencies and asylum seekers.

They’re crucial for information sharing and helping us to build a better tool for them.


How have Airbnb employees and network responded to your refugee program?

Kellie Bentz: We hear a lot about the situation for refugees in Europe, but every region we work in has their own issues. Given our mission, our employees are a very engaged population to start with. The reaction has been tremendous across our global offices. It’s been overwhelmingly positive.

We have an incredible story of an employee host in Paris. Before we even started the refugee program, in 2015 he moved out of his apartment to go live with his parents so a refugee could stay his house for 6 months. They became good friends, our employee has fundraised for his school, worked through all the immigration papers with him. They’re like brothers now.

His efforts have helped our leaders in different areas see what is possible. It has been helpful internally to have that advocate, to have him explain the experience in his own words.


Where do you see Airbnb fitting in the continuum of the search for permanent, stable housing for refugees?

Kellie Bentz: Our platform was built for travellers, it’s short term in nature. Where I think we’ll be most helpful is around short term temporary accommodation. However, there are hosts who think they’ll just offer their place for a few weeks, but once they have the experience want to host longer term.

Or, Susan in Denver, who couldn’t host beyond a month, but was able to talk to a neighbour to  take over and host the refugee. We’re seeing a bit of a domino effect and the integration component growing. On the short term side, everyone sees this as a housing issue. Over the longer term it’s actually helping to build advocates and more welcoming communities.

We see it as an example of our #weaccept campaign, which launched after the travel ban in the U.S. The refugee program has been a powerful example of our philosophy that everyone belongs. We would love people to promote others to become hosts. Even if they’re not ready to host in their homes, becoming more informed is important.


What can other companies and groups learn from your approach?

Kellie Bentz: We were one of the first companies to sign on to Chobani  Tent Partnership for Refugees, because we believe there is a way for everyone to engage on this issue. We see it as a responsibility that comes with being part of any community. As a global company it’s absolutely necessary and critical to be a part of it. We understand that not everyone’s mission is about belonging. Our commitment might a bit higher than most. But, from hiring refugees, figuring out how you can connect with local agencies, all the way to creating a program like ours, there are many ways to contribute and do something.

We find it valuable to be part of the Tent Partnership for Refugees with other private sector entities committed to doing something. Just doing something starts the conversation. People with decision-making or hiring authority in their companies can figure out how to hire refugees.

That’s a significant but easy place to start.

We are committed to this cause. Eventually we will be scaling the product to other causes. We get a lot of requests from causes such as homeless veterans to domestic violence victims and more. We’re looking at ways we may be able to support those causes and issues as well, in the years to come.


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