Airbnb asks its hosts to provide 100,000 free rentals to first responders

Airbnb introduced a new program Thursday that its CEO called “free” housing for first responders dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak. The program asks hosts — the people who actually own the properties that are booked via Airbnb’s platform — to donate the rental without reimbursement from the company, and apparently, to bear the cost of following CDC-recommended cleaning protocols. The goal is to offer lodging to 100,000 first responders, the company says.

As of 3:30PM ET, CEO Brian Chesky tweeted, 12,000 hosts had “opened up their homes” under the program.

First responders looking for a place to stay — either to be closer to their work site or to self-quarantine away from their families while they’re treating or interacting with COVID-19 patients — can connect with hosts who are making their properties available via a new portal the company has set up. Airbnb says the new initiative is built on pilot programs in France and Italy, which have seen 6,000 hosts offer their homes to doctors, nurses, caregivers, and other medical support staff.

The program is an expansion of Airbnb’s Open Homes program, established in 2012, which lets hosts provide free lodging in emergency situations. Airbnb waives service fees on these transactions. Hosts don’t have to offer their properties for free, but will still have all fees waived by Airbnb.

Chris Lehane, Airbnb senior vice president for global policy, said in an emailed statement to The Verge that the company anticipates it will have tens of thousands of hosts open up their homes. “We also invested $20 million in last year alone to the Open Homes program including grants and travel credits to nonprofits to help fund free, temporary housing to people in need, as well as operational costs,” he said.

It’s now soliciting donations to the Open Homes fund which will be disbursed to “partner organizations,” including the International Rescue Committee, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and the International Medical Corps. The donations will “help power even more stays for relief workers while they do their critical work.”

Airbnb has created a “robust list of cleaning and safety protocols” for hosts participating in the new program, and only full listings — not shared ones — are eligible, according to the company.

Airbnb declined to say whether it was going to help hosts defray the costs of getting their properties cleaned per the CDC guidelines. A spokesperson said in an email to The Verge that “Airbnb is contributing to nonprofit partners, and by waiving all associated fees on at least 100,000 stays is also contributing millions of dollars in kind. Essentially, any money Airbnb would’ve made as part of these transactions, on both sides, is waived.”

The spokesperson said in addition to the usual fee waivers offered through the Open Homes program, “fees for other COVID-19 responder stays are currently being waived as well. For any paid stays in the program, such as those booked by medical organizations, hosts can still charge their own fees, including cleaning fees.”

Reuters reported on Wednesday that Airbnb saw revenue of $4.8 billion for 2019 and was cash flow positive. The company has $3 billion in cash, according to Reuters.

Meanwhile, Airbnb hosts reportedly are struggling to book their properties after the company announced that starting March 14th it would offer refunds to any guests who canceled reservations through April 14th. The company didn’t offer reimbursement to hosts under that new policy.

The company said that under the $2 trillion economic stimulus package passed by the Senate Wednesday, hosts who are diagnosed with COVID-19, or whose family members are diagnosed, would be eligible to apply for unemployment insurance, Reuters reported. Some Airbnb hosts may be eligible for the small business loans included in the stimulus package to cover property costs like utility payments and mortgage interest, and to pay independent contractors they may employ to clean or manage their properties, Airbnb told Reuters.

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