“She arrived with a bag smaller than what most people take to the gym, and in her other hand she had a big bouquet of flowers,” Upper West Sider Shoshannah Benmosché recalled of the guest she housed for five days after Hurricane Sandy.
Her guest lived on the 41st floor in a building in the Financial District and was evacuated during the super-storm late last month. Benmosché smiled, remembering the roses and orange lilies she brought with her on that first day.
The guest came to Benmosché’s doorstep through Airbnb, a website that lets homeowners offer guests a room in their house for short periods. Usually, the website invites its hosts to charge as much or as little as they like, and then takes a percentage of the listing price as revenue.
But after Sandy hit the city three weeks ago, Airbnb, partnering with the city, announced they would not charge their usual fees for trips booked by those who needed shelter from Hurricane Sandy. They also encouraged hosts to bring their fees down to zero.
As of Monday night, 1,127 members around the city had opened up their homes for free. The largest response was in Harlem, where 44 homes are currently listed as open. The Upper West Side contributed 22.
Benmosché called the Airbnb promotion “the easiest, least demanding, nicest gift I could have given. A gift that also gave back to me.” She had to put off having her apartment repainted and estimates that she lost around $700, but she insisted it was worth it.
Latasha Moore, a Harlem resident, also opened her home for free after Sandy. Moore said she started using Airbnb about two and a half years ago as a means to make money, but was inspired to offer her home because she moved to Manhattan after Hurricane Katrina hit her native New Orleans.
“After Katrina, it took a few days till I could leave my apartment,” she said. She went straight to New York. “People were putting their couches, sofas, living rooms on websites that were sprouting up,” she said—an experience that inspired her to do the same.
“Having a place to stay is the world. It’s huge, it’s a big deal,” Moore said. “It’s about having someone there, when you’re used to staying in a house—a friendly connection.”
Diane Eamtrakul, another Harlem resident who offered her home for free, also had a personal connection to a natural disaster. Eamtrakul, whose grandparents had a house in Thailand, narrowly missed the December 2004 tsunami.
“I learnt throughout the process to never underestimate mother nature—water, land, fire and wind,” Eamtrakul said.
Like Moore, Eamtrakul has yet to receive a booking from a guest affected by Sandy.
“I wish I could do more to help some of the families who need houses or warm places to stay,” she said.
Moore said the Airbnb community in New York has been united by Sandy and their efforts to help. They are now organizing food drives in Brooklyn and other community events.
For Moore, the Sandy relief effort is part of the “volunteerism spirit” of Airbnb, “whether they’re new or old hosts, whatever their age or race.”
Since getting involved with the site, she said, “I think I’m happier. Having a full house is something I like.”