Airbnb offers free temporary housing for North Bay fire victims

These are just two of the estimated 1,000 local properties that have been listed on Airbnb for those displaced from the wildfires to stay at for free. (AIRBNB)


Vacation rental service Airbnb is aiding efforts to find immediate free housing for victims of the North Bay wildfires and exploring ways to use its network to provide long-term shelter for people displaced by a natural disaster that has exacerbated the local housing crisis.

About 1,000 Airbnb hosts have signed up to house displaced fire victims in their homes for free through a special temporary housing program and around 300 of those were still available as of Thursday afternoon, said Kellie Bentz, head of global disaster response and relief efforts for the company.

The effort comes as local officials scramble to house people displaced from the blazes that destroyed 6,800 structures, including 2,900 homes and an estimated 500 hotel rooms in Santa Rosa.

The Airbnb hosts range from local Sonoma County residents to those in San Francisco and parts of Marin and Alameda counties. All hosts have put a free listing on their rooms onto a special page of the company’s website. The offerings range from a futon in a living room in San Francisco’s Castro District to a sunny apartment in Mill Valley with a nice view.

The hosts under the company’s Open Homes program are in control of how long they will allow guests to stay at their homes. In addition, the San Francisco-based company is waiver on all booking fees it typically charges.

The program was slated to expire Monday but will be extended through Nov. 15 for hosts in Sonoma and Marin counties who want to continue to participate, Bentz said.

“We’re keeping them as close to schools and neighbors and trying to get them back home,” she said.

The Open Homes program was started in 2012 in the aftermath of flooding from Hurricane Sandy to help those in New York and New Jersey who were displaced because of the storm.

Airbnb is not the only company in the so-called sharing economy exploring new avenues to help fire victims. Mighway, a platform that connects recreational vehicle owners with guests, has reached out to its users to offer discounted emergency accommodations to people displaced by the fires. The company said it has 250 participating RV owners in the area.

In the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria that affected Florida last month, Airbnb tried a new additional initiative to provide temporary disaster housing that it now wants to duplicate in the North Bay, Bentz said.

Under the program, Airbnb hosts accept an evacuee for a monthlong rental and are compensated through emergency grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The rent will be below market rates — Bentz suggested that it could range from $700 to $1,400 a month — and primarily targeted for people who did not have insurance coverage for displacement. The company does not take a fee under the program.

“You have to start thinking differently,” Bentz said of the recent disaster efforts. “Everyone is trying new things and new ways.”

Airbnb wants to check with city and county officials before deciding whether to ramp up the program locally to ensure it wouldn’t run afoul of any housing regulations, Bentz said.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or