Airbnb, the hip — and now illegal in New York City — alternative to extended stay hotels and lodging in the antique-filled spare room of some chatty old woman with a half-dozen cats, has launched a new disaster response tool enabling gracious and big-hearted users to more easily connect with folks in desperate need of free or discounted short-term accommodations.

The irony here is that the tool which is activated 30 or minutes or less after a disaster, be it an earthquake, tornado, hurricane, or emergency situation such as the Boston Marathon bombings, was conceived by the wildly popular San Francisco-based peer-to-peer travel rental company after taking note of the many Airbnb hosts in New York that opened up their homes to displaced strangers during the days — and weeks — following Superstorm Sandy.

Reads the Airbnb blog:

When Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast, Airbnb hosts in New York opened doors and cooked meals for those left stranded. When we heard the stories, we were humbled, inspired, and challenged to build a way to scale these generous acts throughout our community and the world. The first thing we did was to hack a way to take in displaced neighbors for free. We made some key changes to the Airbnb website to ensure hosts could share their space free of charge, and ultimately provided over 1,400 free or discounted properties during the storm.
But making those changes took more time than we would like, and it was difficult to get word of this new option to those without electricity. In an emergency every moment is precious, and natural disasters are difficult to predict. This got us thinking: how can we do more, more efficiently in the future? Emergency housing is an incredibly complex problem to solve, but our community is amazingly generous and spans across 192 countries around the world. What steps could we take right now to be prepared?

Developed with the assistance of IDEO, the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management, and other organizations, the Airbnb Disater Response Tool includes several key features including an email alert that is sent out to a city/region’s host community in the aftermath of a disaster asking if they’d be willing to help; waived booking fees; a feature that allows local residents that aren’t already registered as hosts to provide lodging; and a dynamic landing page that makes it “easy for guests to browse listings and request to stay with a host during their time of need.”

As with normal bookings, all bookings made through the Disaster Response Tool are covered by Airbnb’s Host Guarantee.

Naturally, a displaced person hunkering down in someone’s spare bedroom during the aftermath of a catastrophe lends itself to be a more logistically complex situation than a tourist taking up residence in a stranger’s penthouse loft while they’re away on two-week business trip. The duration of the stay is obviously a potential issue as affected person may have absolutely no idea when they’ll be able to return home. A host has obviously ever right to give a guest the boot after an established amount of time but in the case of short- to long-term homelessness brought on by a catastrophic event, things may get a bit tricky.

It’s a fabulous idea — I teared up pretty hard watching the above video — and as someone who was displaced for over three weeks by Superstorm Sandy, I can say that I considered turning to Airbnb for shelter. However, I, in full-on trainwreck mode, was lucky enough to be put up by friends until my heat, hot water, and electricity was restored. Still, It's great to know that I have the option of Airbnb, outlawed-in-NYC status be damned, if I ever need it in the future.

Airbnb hosts: now that the website has an official disaster response tool, do you think you’d ever employee it following an emergency?

Via [Fast Company]

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

Big-hearted accommodations: Airbnb does disaster housing
Inspired by the altruistic action that sprung from Superstorm Sandy, peer-to-peer rental platform Airbnb launches a special Disaster Response Tool.