Articles

Shared Housing Offers Disaster Relief for Cities

More than 160,000 shelter stays were provided during and after Hurricane Sandy by a range of organizations, according to the American Red Cross.

by / December 8, 2015
Portland, Ore., has an agreement with Airbnb to help meet lodging needs in the event of an emergency. Shutterstock

Editor's note: This is part one of a four-part series in which Government Technology looks at some ways that local governments are using the sharing economy right now, and what it will take for cities to benefit from the full value of sharing resources in the public sector.

When Hurricane Sandy hit the northeast coast in 2012, thousands were displaced from their homes by the flooding and power outages. In response, a woman in New York City who was an Airbnb host listed her loft at no cost to anyone who had become temporarily homeless because of the storm. Eventually more than 1,400 hosts did the same as the devastation spread.

The act of generosity caught the attention of Airbnb, which launched a disaster relief initiative in 2013, making it easier for hosts to provide space to people who need it when an emergency strikes. The initiative also caught the attention of government emergency management officials in several cities, leading to agreements that help cities identify hosts willing to share their lodgings during an emergency.

More than 160,000 shelter stays were provided during and after Hurricane Sandy by a range of organizations, according to the American Red Cross. A lot of people also took care of themselves, with many staying in rooms at local hotels and motels. But as Sandy proved, cities can be caught off-guard by the severity of a disaster, overwhelming relief efforts including places to stay during and after the emergency. That’s why Portland, Ore.’s Bureau of Emergency Management struck an agreement with Airbnb in 2014 to help streamline disaster response in an emergency (the city has passed legislation allowing short-term rentals).

During an emergency, the Red Cross provides food and shelter to displaced people and families, said Dan Douthit, the bureau’s public information officer. “People will also find shelter on their own, usually at local hotels and motels.” But the lodging industry may not be enough to meet demand. “This agreement adds potential capacity,” said Douthit.

The agreement calls for Airbnb to identify hosts who are willing to help and to share that information with the city. The company will also help hosts prepare for emergencies through training and will act as an information hub, using its mobile software to notify hosts and guests about possible emergencies. In return, Airbnb will waive its service fee to hosts who offer their lodgings for free.

So far, there’s been no emergency in the Portland area that has triggered the need for shelter from Airbnb hosts. Douthit believes an earthquake would be a likely scenario, but a flood or major fire could also put the agreement into play. Besides Portland, San Francisco’s Department of Emergency Management has a similar partnership with Airbnb.

Several cities have also expressed an interest in working with Nextdoor, a social networking site for neighbors who want to communicate and interact around topics like crime, safety services and disaster preparedness. Nextdoor is currently available for free in nearly 53,000 communities, but use is restricted to specific geographic locations.

Seeing a demand for communication between local governments and Nextdoor communities, the company has launched a new version that allows cities to exchange information with online communities within the network. While Nextdoor isn’t a room-sharing network, it’s similar to Airbnb in that it has the infrastructure and communication capabilities to deliver citywide alerts, crowdsourced reports and crisis maps that connect residents to resources during an emergency or disaster.

For example, Nextdoor works with the Houston Office of Emergency Management to alert residents when safety issues occur in their neighborhoods. “The platform at its core is well positioned to help with emergency response,” Kelsey Grady, head of communications at Nextdoor, told Government Technology last year. Formal agreements between a city and a sharing economy provider, such as Nextdoor, can get more accomplished, she added.

Tod Newcombe Senior Editor

With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector. He is now a senior editor for Government Technology and a columnist at Governing magazine.