2:29pm

Sun November 11, 2012
All Tech Considered

Left Homeless, Storm Victims Turn To Internet To Find Shelter

Originally published on Mon November 12, 2012 8:29 am

Housing is always in short supply in New York City, and Superstorm Sandy just made things much worse. The government is paying hotel costs for many of those displaced, while others are staying with friends and family.

That still leaves many people still looking for a spare bedroom, and some are now turning to the social networking website Airbnb – a site that matches people seeking vacation rentals — to find a place to stay.

Michael Bhagwandin lives in a top-floor apartment on a leafy street in New York City's Chelsea neighborhood. By New York standards, its 1,300 square feet is massive, and Bhagwandin and his partner sometimes rent their spare bedroom to tourists through Airbnb. Starting this week, however, they are not charging:

"We're opening up our home for free for anyone who's lost their home to the hurricane," Bhagwandin says.

Bhagwandin is responding to an appeal from Airbnb and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and you can see the result on the Airbnb website: hundreds of hosts, offering free lodging to storm victims.

In the past, Airbnb and the city have been at odds, because in some cases those rentals are technically illegal under state law. The fact that Bloomberg is now seeking Airbnb's help shows just how dire the need really is. Bhagwandin says he immediately got 25 requests for his guest room.

"It's actually been a little bit overwhelming," he says. "I've actually asked my partner, 'How do I decide who gets to stay here and who doesn't?'"

That's created a thorny problem. Usually, Airbnb hosts can rely on feedback: guests and hosts review each other, and they try to build good reputations. But most of the storm victims flocking to the site now have never used it before, so their profiles have no history.

"So I don't even know who's coming here," Bhagwandin says.

One man offered to show Bhagwandin his driver's license, to prove he really lives in the Rockaways, where his basement apartment flooded. Bhagwandin can also be swayed by the applicant's circumstances.

Bhagwandin got an especially compelling email from Mackie Yakaitis, who said he and his roommate were homeless, not because of the storm itself, but because of the prolonged blackouts in New Jersey — which then led to a different kind of disaster.

"Somebody fell asleep with the candles on and the house burned down last night," Yakaitis says.

Yakaitis knows that the hosts are taking a chance, offering free crash pads to people who don't have established Airbnb profiles. So he was pleasantly surprised by Bhagwandin's reply.

"You know, the first response he gave me was, 'I'd love to have you guys over,'" Yakaitis says. "I didn't have a profile picture or anything. Not to mention it's November, and I have a mustache; I probably would have scared him."

Bhagwandin will meet Yakaitis — and his possibly scary mustache – to let him stay for a few days starting Monday.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

The hardship of life in a storm-damaged city has actually brought New Yorkers closer together. Many people there have volunteered space in their homes to help out those without a place to stay. And the gathering place for connecting them: the Internet. NPR's Martin Kaste reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOORBELL)

MICHAEL BHAGWANDIN: Come on up.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Michael Bhagwandin lives in a top-floor apartment on a leafy street in Chelsea. It's a great place. He says so himself.

BHAGWANDIN: So we've got, I mean, a pretty massive 1,300-square-foot apartment. By New York standards, I mean, this is pretty big. You can hear the church bells.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS)

KASTE: He and his partner sometimes rent their spare bedroom to tourists, through the Web-based service called Airbnb. But starting this week, they're not charging.

BHAGWANDIN: We're opening up our home for free to anyone who has lost their home from the hurricane.

KASTE: He's responding to an appeal from Airbnb and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. You can see the result on the Airbnb website: hundreds of hosts offering free lodging to storm victims. In the past, Airbnb and the city have been at odds because in some cases, those rentals are technically illegal under state law.

The fact that Bloomberg is now seeking Airbnb's help shows just how dire the need really is. Bhagwandin says right off the bat, he got 25 requests for his guest room.

BHAGWANDIN: It's actually been a little bit overwhelming. I've actually asked my partner, too, like, how do I decide who gets to stay here and who doesn't?

KASTE: That's a thorny problem. Usually, Airbnb hosts can rely on feedback: guests and hosts review each other, and they try to build good reputations. But most of the storm victims flocking to the site now have never used it before. On his computer, Bhagwandin points out their newly minted profiles.

BHAGWANDIN: You can see, because it says, established November 2012. So it's brand new, so I don't even know who's coming here.

KASTE: One man offered to show Bhagwandin his driver's license to prove that he really lives in the Rockaways where his basement apartment flooded. Bhagwandin can also be swayed by the applicant's circumstances. For instance, he got an especially compelling email from a man named Mackie Yakaitas, who said he and his roommate were homeless not because of the storm itself but because of the prolonged blackouts in New Jersey, which then led to a different kind of disaster.

MACKIE YAKAITAS: And somebody fell asleep with the candles on and the house burned down last night.

KASTE: Yakaitis knows that the hosts are taking a chance, offering free crash pads to people who don't have established Airbnb profiles. So he was pleasantly surprised by Bhagwandin's reply.

YAKAITAS: You know, the first response he gave me was, I'd love to have you guys over. And that was, you know, I didn't even have a profile picture or anything. So...

KASTE: Bhagwandin will meet Yakaitas on Monday. The initial invitation is just for three days, but Bagwandin says if they hit it off, who knows? Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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