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Queens Chronicle

Free rooms for Sandy evacuees

Residential rental company Airbnb partners with city for housing

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Posted: Thursday, November 15, 2012 10:30 am

There are two folded towels at the foot of the bed in Jenna Flannigan’s spare Astoria bedroom, in the apartment she shares with her boyfriend Ron. With it’s inviting mustard yellow walls, large desk and cozy double-size bed already made, the room would be a welcome sight to anyone still displaced by Hurricane Sandy for two major reasons: it’s available and free.

Through the company Airbnb, which connects tourists seeking unique lodging options at residences in lieu of staying at a hotel, hosts are able to post ads to promote extra rooms they have for rent to travelers.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Airbnb, available in 192 countries, has partnered with New York City to provide information to those still affected by the superstorm and to allow hosts to help displaced residents by opening up their homes free of charge.

Flannigan’s experience with the Donated Sandy Housing program has been a successful one. So much so that two students who had to evacuate from lower Manhattan during the superstorm, just sent her and her boyfriend a thank-you note for their hospitality, along with a small gift.

“It’s been a very positive and easy experience. People have been very polite and gracious. I encourage others to do it if they have the space,” Flannigan said, who only signed up as a host on Airbnb after the hurricane as a way to help out.

“We’ve housed a number of people with different circumstances,” added Flannigan, including a volunteer electrician with specialized skills, who booked a plane ticket to New York City without a place to stay.

The couple also hosted financially stretched tourists who were visiting from Spain when their flight was delayed a week because of the hurricane.

“The relief effort, it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Because of the nature of the destruction, we’re prepared to continue doing this for an extended period of time, until we feel comfortable and it’s not needed anymore,” she said.“We realized how lucky we were; so lucky to not be impacted and wanted to help people who were.”

Flannigan also servers as a volunteer with Occupy Sandy, a coordinated recovery effort established to help volunteers get resources to the hardest-hit areas, with members made up from Occupy Wall Street, 350.org and interoccupy.net.

“Since Sandy hit, we’ve seen numerous examples of the private sector using technology to find new ways to help people,” Mayor Bloomberg said in a press release last week.

“This new offering from Airbnb is another great way to match New Yorkers in need with those who have something to give,” he added.

Individuals participating in the Donated Sandy Housing program will still be covered by Airbnb’s insurance as they are when they offer their rooms for a profit. Airbnb “landlords” are backed by insurer Lloyd’s of London for up to $1 million as part of the company’s “host guarantee.”

Currently 556 free rentals are available through the company’s website. While the majority of rooms are located in the five boroughs, hosts are posting rooms for Long Island and New Jersey too.

General manager for The New York Musical Festival Jeremy Youett was called directly by Airbnb to see if he’d be interested in participating in the program, because of his stellar review record from past renters of his spare bedroom in Astoria.

“I was happy to do [it],” Youett said, who’s been a host on the website for two years, for “dozens and dozens” of people during that time.

As of last week Airbnb helped to facilitate 2,500 last-minute bookings to those affected by Hurricane Sandy. But some Airbnb community members still had questions about this unprecedented program such as how could hosts know if the person contacting them was really impacted?

“All of the prospective guests must sign up with Airbnb to request a space. [Hosts] will have full communication with and vetting of any potential guests prior to accepting a booking,” said senior manager of content and social media Vivek Wagle on Airbnb’s blog.

“Hosts should never accept any bookings until they are completely confident of their guests,” Wagle added.

Welcome to the discussion.