In The News: Harvey & Vacation Rentals

Vacation Rentals Turn Into Shelters in Harvey’s Wake

By John L. Dormansept of the NY Times

The six-bedroom home in an affluent neighborhood of New Orleans has everything a vacationer would want in a rental: tasteful décor with old-world touches like a clawfoot tub, a saltwater pool and a deck that would tempt even an inexperienced griller to try to char a nice dry-aged rib-eye. It goes for $750 a night this time of year on Airbnb.

But the property, a couple of hours away from flood-soaked Lafayette, La., is now available at a steep discount: it’s marked down 100 percent.

Nearly 1,100 homes and rooms are being offered for free to evacuees of Hurricane Harvey through vacation rental sites, making the hosts unlikely operators of mini-shelters at a time when tens of thousands are displaced in Texas and Louisiana.

The bulk of the free listings — about 1,000 — are on Airbnb. And in a sign that the site, which started out as a freewheeling peer-to-peer exchange, has grown up, the city of Houston is relying on it to find emergency medical workers a free place to stay as well.

airbnb

Airbnb’s listings are not a spontaneous effort. The vacation rental and hospitality company first created a disaster relief plan to allow people renting properties to offer free lodging for evacuees after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. This time around, hosts in Houston, Galveston, Corpus Christi, New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Shreveport, Lake Charles, and Lafayette can offer free stays to hurricane evacuees through the site through Sept. 25. Because the site does not manage the properties it lists, it can only ask its hosts to offer free lodging.

“We have since helped in 75 disasters internationally including Hurricane Matthew and wildfires in California,” said Kellie Bentz, the head of global disaster response and relief for Airbnb. “But Harvey is the most significant.”

The hurricane marks an interesting turn of events for Airbnb. It has gone from being a site that several cities, including Austin, have sought to prevent or limit from operating in their municipalities to one that is working with public officials in Houston. It is also currently responding to flooding in Mumbai, where intense rains and flooding killed at least five people in a single day last week.

If the site successfully positions itself and its hosts as philanthropic partners to aid in disasters, it will eventually face questions about which emergencies qualify for the $0 lodging rate and what doesn’t.

Harvey is unquestionably a disaster of epic proportions. The demand is no less acute even though the floodwaters have ebbed. In many cases, receding waters have only revealed the scale of the devastation. Some evacuees returned home to find that they lacked safe drinking water or basic necessities. And some who rode out the storm have since left because it is no longer safe to remain.

Gabbie Vasquez was one of them. After the storm made landfall, she left her home in Angleton, Tex., along with her boyfriend and 6-year-old son because she worried that she would lose power. They stayed in a hotel for two days and planned to return home but the roads had flooded.

So they met up with other family members at a McDonald’s in Waco and tried to come up with a game plan. “We’re thinking to ourselves, ‘What are we going to do now? Where are we going to go?’”

While the kids were playing, they started looking online. A Facebook post led her to Airbnb, where she saw a listing that said: “Mi casa es su casa” or “My home is your home.”

She clicked and found her way to the home of Edith Flores, an Austin resident and first-grade teacher who is a single mother to three children. Ms. Flores usually charges $80 to $100 to stay in her guesthouse, and $50 for the garage loft. But in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, she is listing her accommodations for free.

 “I personally don’t have the financial funds to donate as much as I’d like to,” she said. “This is one thing I can do.”

Several other hosts said they had also found quick takers. Heather Ayrer, a stay-at-home mom who lives in a three-story townhouse in the Midtown neighborhood, has been a host for two years and generally charges $78 a night for a bedroom and bathroom space with a private entrance. When she offered her home to Harvey evacuees for $0, the response was overwhelming.

“I was immediately flooded with 15 requests from people who needed help,” she said. “My entire September is booked solid with different people involved in Harvey, including an electrician who is coming into town to help with power restoration in the city.”

HomeAway, the Austin-based marketplace that focuses on vacation rentals, has a smaller number of listings than Airbnb, roughly 100. It has created a number of services for those affected by the hurricane, including a specialized page for temporary housing and a dedicated line for reservations. It draws upon its inventory from HomeAway as well as the other sites it operates: VRBO and Vacationrentals.com. During this time, service fees will be waived from any rentals for evacuees or emergency medical workers.

The sites each contain plenty of listings at higher price points, but there is no evidence of price gouging, Airbnb said. Many of those listings, like one home listed for $2,500 a night, are vestiges of sunnier times. The two-bedroom home in the Heights District boasts: “Great Super Bowl Weekend Rental!”

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