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January 16, 2024

Using Airbnb to expand emergency housing capacity

Bonnie Williams

By Bonnie Williams

Since March 2022, over 7,000 people have arrived in Wales from Ukraine, fleeing the conflict. With local authorities struggling to find accommodation for incoming families, Airbnb.org – the charitable arm of the holiday accommodation booking platform – reached out to the Welsh Government with $1 million (£815,000) to support efforts to house this population.

Airbnb.org wished to work directly with third sector organisations working on the ground, and the grant funding went to Housing Justice Cymru to work in partnership with the platform and the Welsh Government to house Ukrainian families in accommodation bookable via the Airbnb platform. Admittedly, we were surprised to discover Airbnb has a separate charitable arm – while there may often be bad press around second home ownership and its impact on communities, especially in Wales, it was refreshing to see how Airbnb used their model to help in times of crisis. Because of their approach to the Welsh Government and stipulation to work with the third sector, we were able to work in partnership with the government and move at a fast pace to get this project up and running. One initial challenge in setting up was that legal agreements were all written on United States terms, and a specialist was hired to advise on the application of these for use in Wales.

With the grant funding, we worked with local authorities to book accommodation for families for up to 30 days. While in theory, property owners could make their properties available free of charge via Airbnb.org – a platform created to offer housing in emergency situations – in practice, there were few suitable properties available, and instead bookings had to be made on the regular Airbnb.com using our credit. We also had a small cash budget that could be used for hotels or other accommodation when there were no suitable Airbnbs, or where the accommodation wouldn’t cover the full range of dates needed.

Running from September 2022 to June 2023, the project accommodated upwards of 300 Ukrainians who would otherwise have had to rely on homelessness provision. The local authorities we worked with throughout the process were very grateful for this support in a time of crisis. The funding took pressure off their services, and families were able to land on their feet in a spacious and quality property, enabling them to lead a more normal family life in temporary accommodation.

However, in using a marketplace like Airbnb – where shepherd’s huts, treehouses, mansions and remote cottages are listed for holiday-makers looking for a getaway – not all options were suitable for housing families fleeing war. Aside from this, one of the biggest challenges was the 30 day limit on stays. While there was occasional flexibility with additional days, it wasn’t possible to secure lengthy extensions, and 30 days was rarely sufficient time for local authorities and those they were working with to identify a suitable long-term solution. As a result of the restriction, we did not see the volume of referrals predicted, and were unfortunately unable to spend the whole amount of the platform credit, and $323,200 (approximately £280,452) was re-absorbed by Airbnb at the end of the project. Despite this significant underspend, we were unable to accommodate other nationalities through the programme, as the funding was ringfenced for Ukrainian nationals only. While the platform budget was not fully utilised, the £65,375 “off platform” spend for hotels was all made use of to bridge the gaps.

We implemented safety checks (i.e. verifying gas/electric certificates) before housing people and created a database of suitable properties, which was very resource intensive. While Airbnb does not require such checks, if their properties are to be used to assist with emergency housing capacity, it would be appropriate for the safety standards to match those expected of social housing. When we found a suitable property in a good location, we would have liked to block book it to ensure we could access it for future families as needs emerged, but regrettably, this was not permitted as name and passport details were required to make each booking.

From concept through to development and delivery, the project was initiated and wrapped up within less than a year, and has been an important learning experience. 

In a time of crisis like this, third sector organisations are in the best position to be able to act – familiar with the local needs and contexts – and to be able to recruit, onboard, design, deliver and evaluate a project in a short timeframe.

We were very grateful to Airbnb for bringing this funding to Wales, and for working specifically with third sector organisations. We also thought it apt that Airbnb was willing to contribute to creating additional emergency housing capacity in areas where the platform has had a major impact on local housing markets. 

While the funding provided a practical solution for a number of households who would have otherwise ended up in temporary accommodation, we had to flex and do whatever we could to make this work and overcome obstacles. Affordability was not a key focus, and had we not been funded by Airbnb, many properties would have been unattainable, particularly during the holiday season price-hikes.

Furthermore, salaries were funded for the first three months – seen as the peak of the crisis – and thereafter the Welsh Government had to fund it. We did think it a missed opportunity not to come with a budget for operating costs that enable the delivery partner to run the service for the necessary length of time. This process has been a significant learning experience, and going forward, we would encourage similar schemes to co-design and deliver with organisations like ours who are crucial when it comes to implementing interventions on the ground. We feel close collaboration with the third sector is the best way to ensure a project like this has the biggest impact.

  • Bonnie Williams is Director of Housing Justice Cymru

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