Technology

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Airbnb launches Open Homes refugee housing platform

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I've yet to have a bad experience in an Airbnb. Granted I might just have been lucky, but then the vast majority of my friends have shared equally positive experiences, so maybe they really do have an excellent vetting process (for balance, if anyone has any horrendous Airbnb stories to tell, please feel free to do so in the comments below). They are also a company with benevolence seemingly built into the brand. One recent example of has seen Airbnb CMO Jonathan Mildenhall chastise the Cannes Lions festival for its lack of ethnic diversity, as, of the 102 speakers due to attend this year, only three of them are non-white, himself included. The brand doesn't seem content to just rally against injustice either. It has it's sights set on even more ambitious, potentially life-changing frontiers. These frontiers have, in my eyes, been breached and surpassed by a new venture called “Open Homes,” which has seen the online hospitality marketplace harness its vast network of short-term home rentals to create a new platform providing free housing for refugees.

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Open Homes is the key project to come out of Airbnb's in-house humanitarian team led by designer Cameron Sinclair. The team was assembled by Airbnb co-founder and designer Joe Gebbia over a year ago to help the company achieve its aim of providing temporary housing for 100,000 people within five years. The new platform allows users who are already registered on the site as hosts to easily offer up their rooms to refugees and displaced people for free. Qualifying relief organisations and non-profits are able to take up the offers by booking rooms on a short-term basis for refugees and other people in need. Airbnb already has three million registered hosts around the world, 6,000 of whom have already offered their rooms for Open Homes, which is a truly remarkable number. Rooms are offered free of charge to refugees, and Airbnb will not collect any fees on the bookings. Initially Airbnb has partnered with organisations in France, Canada, Greece, Germany, Italy, the USA and Spain, but it hopes to expand into more countries in the future.

Joe Gebbia said: “In the past, it was really difficult for people to open up their home to someone in need. Now leveraging Airbnb's core competency is easy for anyone who has a spare room or apartment, and wants to connect with relief organisations and play a small role in tackling this global challenge.” David Miliband, (yes THAT David Milliband) president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, one of the organisations with access to the service, added: “By connecting hosts willing to open their homes with families in need, Airbnb will help us cut the time and expense of moving refugees from harm to home. Perhaps just as important, this sort of home sharing allows people to make real connections and to build lasting relationships.”

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Joe Gebbia

Airbnb, which was recently valued at $31 billion, has been building up to this project with a number of smaller initiatives over the past few years. Notably in 2012, during Hurricane Sandy in New York, the company created a platform in 24 hours allowing its hosts to offer emergency accommodation for people in need. Airbnb's #weaccept commercial also aired during the Super Bowl in February, nine days after Trump's travel ban was announced, outlining the firm's ambition to house 100,000 displaced people. The ad encouraged people to accept people from all backgrounds and it led to 16,000 people agreeing to open their homes to displaced people, including immigrants to the US in need of temporary housing.

Gebbia brought the San Francisco-based Sinclair into the fold last year. Sinclair is a co-founder of Architecture for Humanity and architecture firm Small Works, and also worked for Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's humanitarian charity the Jolie-Pitt Foundation. He also helped Airbnb on its Yoshino Cedar House, a guest house designed by Go Hasegawa that is intended as a template for how Airbnb could help revitalise depopulated areas of the world. The Open Homes initiative, however, might just be the brand's most bold and brilliant charitable move yet.

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Benjamin Hiorns is a freelance writer and musician from Kidderminster in the UK.

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