When Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky tweeted Saturday night that his company would be offering free housing to immigrants displaced by President Donald Trump’s travel ban, the move was lauded as one of the strongest in Silicon Valley.
Trump signed an executive order on Friday banning refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority nations from entering the United States. Over the weekend, a string of tech companies came out against the policy with measured responses, usually saying they didn’t support it and offering assistance to employees impacted by the ban.
But an offer of free housing made Airbnb stand out from the crowd. The company is asking its hosts around the world to volunteer their Airbnb listings as free housing for refugees and immigrants. If people need a place to stay and no hosts are willing to put them up gratis, the company says it will cover the costs.
In an email to BuzzFeed News, an Airbnb spokesperson said the company is already working with individuals who reached out about a place to stay, as well as with relief organizations that are in touch with immigrants in need of housing.
The ability to travel freely, and be accepted wherever you go, is central to Airbnb’s brand. Over the last year of the company’s public relations crises, from its apology for allowing racial discrimination on the platform to its promise to work with cities rather than suing them, it’s become clear that Airbnb is heavily invested in maintaining its reputation as the nice guy of the sharing economy. It’s an image that has slipped in recent years, as housing advocates attack the company — and Airbnb is willing to leverage both its capital and global network of homeowners in order to maintain it.
“We believe that you should be able to travel to, and live in any community around the world,” said Chesky in an email to employees on Sunday. “This is what we mean when we say anyone should be able to belong anywhere. If we want this to be more than just something we put on a plaque, we have to take action.”
Airbnb has been helping people in crisis find a place to stay since 2013. The company has activated a disaster response tool during a hurricane in the United States, an earthquake in Japan, and bombings in Europe; now, it’s doing the same thing for “refugees and those who may have unexpectedly been affected by the recent travel ban into the United States.” Hosts around the world can sign up to volunteer their homes, and Airbnb connects them with displaced people as needed.
The company didn’t say whether any immigrants have been connected with hosts yet, or the locations of people who had asked about housing.
Airbnb isn’t alone in these efforts. Other online platforms that exist specifically to offer housing to refugees have popped up over the last couple of years, including Refugees Welcome, a Danish platform used throughout Europe, and EmergencyBnb.com, built by an Egyptian immigrant living in the United States. Both of those platforms are free to the guests, and rely on the generosity of hosts.
Airbnb, meanwhile, says it has provided “over 3,000 nights” of free housing to relief workers and donated $1 million to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The company also invites hosts to “offer warm meals” to refugee families, an initiative it plans to expand in 2017.
Not every sharing economy company that dove into the realm of the political during protests against the immigration ban on Saturday got the same positive results as Airbnb. Uber experienced a major backlash when it offered affordable rides to and from the anti-Trump protest at JFK airport in New York. Critics said it was undercutting a concurrent strike by taxi workers, who opposed the refugee ban on the grounds that it could spark Islamophobia against Muslim drivers. That, combined with the fact that Uber CEO Travis Kalanick is signed on as a Trump economic adviser, inspired thousands of customers to vow to boycott the company, and by Saturday night, #DeleteUber was trending nationally on Twitter.
Airbnb, meanwhile, continues to be lauded for its offer of free housing to immigrants, regardless of whether it ends up costing the company anything. As Uber attempts damage control by targeting a pro-immigration message from Kalanick to “people interested in American Civil Liberties Union” on Facebook, Airbnb’s Instagram account has been underscoring its message of openness and acceptance by sharing glossy photographs of happy travelers and landmarks in Iran, one of the countries on Trump’s ban list.
Caroline O'Donovan is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.
Contact Caroline O'Donovan at email@example.com.
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