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Less than 24 hours after November's wildfires began in Northern and Southern California, Airbnb activated a temporary housing program that has been quietly growing since Hurricane Sandy struck the eastern United States in 2012. The home-sharing company asked its hosts near the affected areas to open their homes and properties for free to hundreds of people forced to evacuate as fast-moving flames threatened their neighborhoods.

Known as Open Homes, the program operates much like Airbnb's regular bookings, with hosts able to control their individual calendars and exchange messages with guests before approving or declining them. Airbnb, for its part, verifies identification of guests, waives its usual fees and covers property insurance for up to $1 million in damage. In the past few years, the company has expanded the program beyond natural disasters to include temporary housing for refugees, people affected by mass shootings and those traveling for medical conditions. Non-hosts can also volunteer to house people in emergencies by adding photos and descriptions to Open Homes in the same way that hosts do on Airbnb's main platform.

More than 2,500 hosts in California have offered free temporary lodging to victims of the Camp, Woolsey and Hill fires since the service became available Nov. 9, and about 2,000 people have found homes through the service, according to Airbnb.

I am familiar with Airbnb's service as both guest and host and felt a mixed rush of gratitude and guilt that the fires hadn't come close to my own canyon neighborhood outside Los Angeles. So when the email from Airbnb landed in my inbox, it seemed like an easy way to help, especially since my family was about to leave for a week over the Thanksgiving holiday. Within 12 hours of joining the Open Homes program, I had three requests and soon booked a family of four who had been evacuated from their Malibu home in the middle of the night.

Lu Zhang-Beaulieu and her husband, Aaron Beaulieu, who live in Los Angeles, quickly signed up their stand-alone property in Palm Springs. The decision was a no-brainer, Zhang-Beaulieu said: "We wanted to help in any way we could. If we were ever in trouble, this would be a service I'd want to use myself." The couple received about 10 requests and chose a single mother with three children to stay for three days between paid bookings. The kids left them handmade clay figures as a thank-you present. "It was really rewarding to us," Zhang-Beaulieu said.

The concept of Open Homes began when an Airbnb host wanted to offer extra bedrooms in her Brooklyn home without charge to residents displaced by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Her request reached co-founder and chief product officer Joe Gebbia, and a team of engineers quickly got to work designing a platform allowing for a zero-dollar listing option. "Our gut instinct at the time was this could be a really helpful tool," said Kim Rubey, Airbnb's global head of social impact and philanthropy.

After an alert went out to hosts in the New York City area, about 1,000 hosts ended up making their homes available to Sandy victims, the company estimated. Then Airbnb started offering the service following other disasters, including an ice storm that crippled Toronto in 2013; flooding in Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia in 2014; and the 7.1-magnitude earthquake in Mexico and Hurricane Harvey in Texas, both in 2017. It has also made the platform available to family members and friends of victims of mass shootings, such as in Orlando in 2016 and Las Vegas in 2017. In 2017, Airbnb opened up the service to refugees, and in 2018, to those traveling for medical treatment or respite.

While other online vacation rental platforms don't have formal programs in place, Home Away hosts have offered discounted or free stays after some disasters.

Juan Maldonado, an Airbnb host in central Florida, first learned of Open Homes in 2016 when Airbnb contacted him and his husband, Bob Leibensperger, directly to see whether they would be willing to house out-of-town family members of some of the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. The couple ended up hosting a young man from California who "was like an adopted son" of a 49-year-old woman who was one of 49 people killed in the shooting. It allowed him to attend her funeral and spend time with other grieving family members without footing extra hotel costs. The couple also took in a group of close friends of another victim of the shooting.

When Hurricane Matthew caused widespread flooding in the southern United States a few months later, Maldonado and Leibensperger, who own several rental properties near Walt Disney World, once again offered free lodging to displaced families. "We knew we wanted to do this whenever there was a tragedy nearby," Maldonado said. Most recently, the couple hosted a family forced by Hurricane Michael to evacuate from the Florida Panhandle in October. The family was grateful for the four days of shelter and had a hard time believing it was at no charge. "They asked, 'Are you sure you don't want us to pay you something?' " Maldonado recalled.

While many Open Homes hosts see the program as a rewarding way to give back, it's not without challenges. Zhang-Beaulieu said she incurred professional cleaning costs to accommodate fire victims because their stay left too little time between paid bookings to tidy up the house herself. When Airbnb extended the Open Homes window in California from Nov. 29 to mid-December, she and her husband declined to participate. "Going into December, it is impossible for us to operate at 'zero-dollar' due to our mortgage, utilities, and cleaning costs," she said. Zhang-Beaulieu would like Airbnb to offer more tips and guidance "so it's more than just a matter of clicking a button and diving in." She thinks hosts especially need advice about how to address extra costs associated with things like heating a pool or accommodating a pet while remaining sympathetic to their guest's situation.

As with the original Airbnb platform, there's always the possibility of deceit. Maldonado says he has used his skills as a veteran host to weed out sketchy requests, such as one from a man from Kentucky who tried to book a free stay through Open Homes in Hurricane Michael's aftermath. "He wanted to stay for a week, and his home was not even in the area impacted," Maldonado said. "It was obvious that some people wanted to take advantage."

Airbnb is aware of this and other concerns, Rubey said. "We take [fraud] extremely seriously." In a quick-moving natural disaster, it's important to make the service available immediately, but guests who are found to not be directly impacted by catastrophe or not in immediate need of housing are immediately removed from the Open Homes platform, she said. "We appreciate that our hosts are going above and beyond allowing people to use their homes."

The company enlists nonprofits and other organizations to help coordinate stays on its platform for refugees and those with medical conditions; refugee programs are in place in Denver, Dallas and other U.S. cities, as well as Canada, France and Greece. For the Medical Stays program, Airbnb works in partnership with organizations that provide housing for people traveling for medical treatment. The company is also exploring temporary housing support for the homeless and veterans in need, although no program is yet in place.

For my part, I would feel comfortable participating in the Open Homes program again. Although it felt a little odd that we never connected personally with the family we housed, they were model guests. They left our place spotless and, in a gesture any Airbnb host will appreciate, posted a lovely online review.

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