Among the U.S. companies attempting to help Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s military assault on their country, Airbnb Inc. has been one of the most prominent.
First, the home-rental platform offered to house 100,000 Ukrainian refugees for free, then social-media users turned Airbnb into a donation tool to help people on the ground in the war-torn country. The company has soaked up attention, with co-founder and Chief Executive Brian Chesky appearing on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” former President Barack Obama promoting Airbnb’s offer to house refugees, and celebrities Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis leading a donation drive.
The narrative of a generous company swooping in to help vulnerable people is a compelling one, but a closer look reveals a more nuanced story in which Airbnb ABNB, -1.37% is scrambling to respond to a fast-moving crisis and plays a more intermediary role than the headlines suggest.
Like other gig-economy companies, Airbnb is a platform that facilitates transactions between different parties, and that approach is reflected in its refugee housing program as well — the program relies on Airbnb hosts to open their homes to refugees, nonprofit partners that register refugees and book Airbnb stays for them, and members of the public who donate money to help pay for the refugees’ stays.
The details of how the fledgling program actually works have been lost in news coverage about Airbnb “offering free refugee housing,” and that’s led to frustration among some Ukrainians and people seeking to help them. Some have struggled to use the system, which in reality uses nonprofits as middlemen to place refugees in free stays provided by Airbnb hosts.
“At best, it’s badly worded. At worst, it’s misleading and not enough care is being taken,” Josh Feldberg, a volunteer in Spain who attempted to help Ukrainian refugees find free housing, said of Airbnb’s offer.
Feldberg was trying to find housing for a group of eight Ukrainians, including young children, who needed to find a place to stay quickly when they realized they couldn’t return home after the Russian invasion. They booked an Airbnb in Murcia and paid full price, 2,000 Euros ($2,200) for a month, he said. When he contacted Airbnb to see if he could at least get the guest fees waived for the Ukrainian group, the Airbnb representative told him it wasn’t possible to waive fees because the group had booked the stay themselves, and that refugees can only be referred by refugee resettlement groups partnering with Airbnb.org, the company’s separate nonprofit.
‘We don’t deal with individual cases’
Anna Samardak left her Kyiv home on Feb. 25 for Uzhgorod, and thought Airbnb’s offer of free housing sounded like a great option when she decided to then leave Uzhgorod with her mother and two young sons after Russian bombs started exploding nearby. She had used Airbnb in the past to book vacation travel, and had positive experiences with the platform. But when she checked the company’s Help Ukraine website, she couldn’t find any information on how Ukrainians fleeing the country could book free shelter.
Samardak contacted the company, and in a March 8 text exchange with an Airbnb support agent, a translation of which was viewed by MarketWatch, she learned that if she wanted help, she would need to be invited to the refugee housing program by one of Airbnb.org’s nonprofit partners.
“We don’t deal with individual cases,” the Airbnb representative told her.
“‘Unfortunately, Airbnb does not have a clear list of the organizations because there are many of them in completely different countries.’”
When Samardak asked how she could get invited and for a list of the nonprofit groups, the Airbnb representative referred her to the Help Ukraine page, saying that information would be published there, and added that the platform’s support team was “always available” on Airbnb’s Help page.
“I understand your feelings and the complexity of the situation,” the representative told Samardak. “Unfortunately, Airbnb does not have a clear list of the organizations because there are many of them in completely different countries.”
At one point in the exchange, an Airbnb “Helpbot” messaged Samardak, asking, “Do you still need help?” “Yes I still need help,” replied Samardak, who asked again for a list of nonprofits working with Airbnb.org. An Airbnb support-desk representative referred her to previous messages in the exchange, and said that was all the information they could provide.
A frustrated Samardak then told an Airbnb employee that the company was offering a service that it was not providing, and that Airbnb was profiting by enhancing its image during a war. The Airbnb representative explained that the company uses nonprofit partners to place refugees to prevent fraud and to make sure the program reaches people who genuinely need help.
“It’s important for Airbnb to help real people that need real help,” the representative told Samardak.
Samardark eventually found a place to stay in Slovakia on a volunteer-run Facebook FB, -1.47% group advertising shelter for Ukrainians. Volunteers have also started online platforms to link Ukrainians with housing, but the homemade sites have sparked fears that users could be vulnerable to human trafficking, which has been a major concern raised by UNICEF. Aid groups working with Ukrainians say vetting potential Airbnb hosts will be crucial as well, Politico reported.
Some Airbnb hosts say they can’t afford to house refugees
Meanwhile, some regular Airbnb hosts feel too much is being asked of them in the refugee-housing program. Airbnb hosts who volunteer to list their accommodations for free for Ukrainian refugees won’t have to pay the usual 3% service fee to Airbnb, but they aren’t compensated beyond that.
However, in cases where hosts are willing to house Ukrainian refugees but still want to charge their usual rate, the company’s separate nonprofit, Airbnb.org, will cover the cost of the refugee’s stay, Airbnb spokeswoman Liz DeBold Fusco told MarketWatch.
“As huge as Airbnb is, if they really want to be good citizens, they might make a contribution to compensate the hosts somehow,” Karen Grimes, an Airbnb “Superhost” and tour guide in Ocala, Fla., said. “They have a lot of money and that might make me a little more amenable to it.”
Grimes rents out a master suite with its own entrance in her house near the World Equestrian Center for $120 a night in the high season, income she relies on to help pay for upkeep on her house. She signed up to participate when Airbnb offered to house Afghan refugees in 2021, but took her space off the list due to concerns that a large family would move into her property for months.
According to the company, the average length of stay during the Afghan refugee program has been 16 to 17 days.
Grimes said she would consider housing Ukrainian refugees, but wouldn’t be able to do it in the high season because it would cost her too much money.
“Airbnb is asking the hosts to not have any income,” she said.
“We have said that we are not able to do this in many cases without the generosity of our hosts,” Airbnb’s DeBold Fusco said. “Absolutely, we are very, very grateful. And we hope that more people consider being hosts.”
“ ‘Right now at this time we don’t provide housing directly to refugees; it’s provided through nonprofit agencies that work with refugees. ”
While the rollout of the Ukrainian effort has hit some snags, Airbnb has attempted to address them. Since its initial announcement, Airbnb has partnered with the International Organization for Migration, and Airbnb.org’s Help Ukraine website now lists an email address for refugees in need of shelter who are in Poland, Slovakia, Moldova, Romania or Hungary.
As for the fleeing Ukrainians who’ve been frustrated to learn that they need to register first with a refugee agency, DeBold Fusco noted that the company has said publicly that it doesn’t directly provide housing to refugees.
“We’ve been pretty clear and we included this in our announcement, which is that we provide housing through nonprofits, nonprofits that are working directly with refugees,” she said. “Right now at this time we don’t provide housing directly to refugees; it’s provided through nonprofit agencies that work with refugees.”
Airbnb has successfully housed refugees in the past
Airbnb’s nonprofit partners found temporary housing for more than 20,000 Afghans last year in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from the region.
“Airbnb’s partnership has been nothing short of critical” in helping resettle Afghan refugees, said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, or LIRS, a faith-based U.S. nonprofit working on immigration and refugee issues.
“They really are the gold standard in how private companies can make a real difference,” O’Mara Vignarajah said of Airbnb. “There’s no telling how many lives we can change for the better when we harness the power of public-private partnerships.”
Airbnb ‘made it easy’ to house Afghan refugees
A look at Airbnb’s initiative to house Afghan refugees shows how the offer of free shelter works in practice. Through a grant from Airbnb.org, LIRS was given special access to the Airbnb platform, where LIRS employees could book stays for refugees.
O’Mara Vignarajah said Airbnb “made it easy” to quickly find temporary housing for refugees, who sometimes had only a day or two’s notice before having to leave the military bases where they were first housed after arriving in the U.S. Having safe, stable housing is a key element in helping refugees build new lives, she said, but the nationwide shortage of affordable housing presents a continual challenge.
LIRS helped resettle some 11,000 Afghan refugees in a matter of months following the U.S. withdrawal. About half used temporary Airbnb lodging.
Another Airbnb nonprofit partner says its partnership with the company helped provide temporary housing last year for 5,000 refugees, including those from Afghanistan, in places like the U.S., Greece, Colombia, and Mexico.
Sydney Morton of the International Rescue Committee said the global nonprofit organization, whose headquarters is in New York, has been working with Airbnb.org since 2016.
The partnership “has helped streamline the IRC’s resettlement efforts by providing a revolutionary way to support newly arriving refugees and asylum-seeking families with temporary housing,” she said. Though the organization is not currently working to place Ukrainian refugees in temporary housing through the Airbnb partnership, she said the IRC is working to help those refugees who are arriving in Poland in other ways.
‘We still have lots of people to take care of’
Rona Popal, executive director of the Afghan Coalition in Fremont, Calif., said her organization has helped place 70 families, or a total of 250 people, in temporary housing through the Airbnb platform since receiving a grant from Airbnb.org in November. She is now waiting for the nonprofit to approve her application for a new grant so the program can continue.
“We still have lots of other people to take care of,” she said, adding that her organization gets “hundreds of calls a day” from Afghan refugees looking for housing, seeking help with deposits for rent and more.
One of the refugees the Afghan Coalition placed in a couple of Airbnbs is Edrees Popalzay. The 26-year-old came to California in December after having been in a refugee camp in New Jersey since August. The coalition helped him find temporary housing in two separate Airbnbs in the Bay Area in December and January, and he is now staying with a friend.
“That program was good for newcomers who don’t have credit,” he told MarketWatch, adding that he was able to stay with other refugees and felt a sense of community thanks to the Afghan Coalition and its partnership with Airbnb.
Popalzay, who said he has already lined up a job but is waiting for authorization to begin working in the U.S., said his wife and 6-month-old daughter are still in Afghanistan along with his mom and brothers. As he waits, he’s taking classes to improve his English skills.
“I already have other plans for the future,” he said.
Who foots the bill for Airbnb’s free refugee stays
Airbnb’s refugee housing program is officially operated by Airbnb.org, the nonprofit established by the company. People don’t have to be existing Airbnb hosts to offer space to refugees; anyone can sign up through Airbnb.org without becoming an official host on the home-sharing platform.
The hosts either donate their space for free or at a discount, but donating a space doesn’t necessarily count as a tax-deductible charitable donation, Airbnb.org says on its website.
Airbnb doesn’t make any revenue off refugee stays, DeBold Fusco told MarketWatch, because the company waives the fee that hosts pay the platform when the guest is a refugee.
However, it’s not the company itself that foots the bill for the refugee stays. Airbnb.org paid for the 20,000 stays provided for Afghan refugees, and donations from the public paid for an additional 1,300 stays for Afghans, DeBold Fusco said.
Airbnb.org is funded by both donations from the public and donations from Airbnb co-founders Brian Chesky, Joe Gebbia and Nate Blecharczyk. All three have signed the Giving Pledge, a public commitment to give away most of their wealth either in their lifetimes or in their wills. The three donated $6 million to Airbnb.org when the nonprofit launched in 2020.
Chesky announced during his mid-March appearance on “The Ellen Degeneres Show” that the trio would match up to $10 million in public donations to Airbnb.org through March 31.
Last June, Airbnb announced a $25 million fundraising initiative “to expand Airbnb.org’s support of refugees and asylum seekers worldwide.” Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia, who is worth an estimated $9.5 billion, personally chipped in $5 million to start the effort. The public was invited to contribute as well.
Though Airbnb started housing people affected by disasters in 2012, Airbnb.org didn’t launch until 2020. So far the nonprofit has filed one set of financial statements with the Internal Revenue Service. They show the nonprofit took in $10.5 million in cash contributions in 2020, plus $4.3 million in donated stock.
The company spokeswoman didn’t have details immediately available on what portion of Airbnb.org’s revenue now comes from public donations and what share is from the company’s founders.
DeBold Fusco said the company solicits public donations for Airbnb.org to give people a way to participate and help out when crises arise. “We saw an overwhelming response from the public to support these efforts. There is a desire for folks to open their homes and for folks to support it,” DeBold Fusco told MarketWatch. Thanks to public donations, she said, Airbnb.org was able to expand its program housing Afghan refugees and provide shelter for additional people.
‘Our charity can often take on the hue of that for-profit, free market system’
Though Airbnb doesn’t make any revenue from the refugee stays, the refugee housing program drives business to the platform, which could in theory lessen supply, drive up demand and indirectly help Airbnb’s bottom line. That may raise questions for critics, but it’s common practice for companies to serve their own interests while also serving the public good.
DeBold Fusco declined to comment on that point, though she did reiterate that no one who uses the platform to offer refugees housing is under obligation to use it again.
Nonprofits that are closely linked to for-profit companies can run into trouble if the nonprofit directly benefits the for-profit entity, said Phil Hackney, a University of Pittsburgh law professor who specializes in nonprofit law. The IRS has revoked the nonprofit status of organizations that cross that line. Examples include nonprofit credit-counseling groups that provided little in the way of services while raking in profits for related companies, and down payment assistance charities for low-income home buyers that engaged in “self-serving, circular-financing arrangements.”
Airbnb’s refugee housing program doesn’t appear to fall into that category, Hackney said.
When it’s examining whether a nonprofit is abusing its tax-exempt status (a status that’s supposed to be reserved for charitable activities), the IRS weighs the private benefit (how much a nonprofit is also helping a for-profit company’s bottom line) against the public benefit (how much it’s helping society), Hackney said.
In this case, Airbnb.org appears to be doing important work by providing shelter to vulnerable people, Hackney noted.
“The challenge in this space is that we are a country deeply committed to a free market and our charity can often take on the hue of that for-profit, free market system,” Hackney said. “The regulation, the discussion, the critique of this space is always fighting back against the free market aspect of this.”
‘I applaud Airbnb — as long as it works’
Response to Airbnb’s effort to house Ukrainian refugees has been “overwhelming,” the company says. More than 21,500 people had signed up to offer their homes to refugees, including approximately 14,000 in Europe and 4,000 in the U.S. as of mid-March.
In the two weeks following Airbnb’s announcement that it would provide free, short-term housing for up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, Airbnb.org received more than $5.2 million “in small-dollar, direct donations,” the company said on March 15. A fundraising drive led by actors Ashton Kutcher, an early investor in Airbnb, and his wife Mila Kunis, who is Ukrainian, brought in more than $34 million as of March 21. The money will be split between Airbnb.org and Flexport.org, a humanitarian aid organization.
People close to the crisis are hopeful Airbnb’s solution can work. Vadim Tolpeco, a Ukrainian in Vienna who wanted to help his fellow Ukrainians find housing, found plenty of information on how to host refugees or donate money, but nothing about how refugees could apply for shelter on the Airbnb website in early March, about a week after Airbnb announced it would house Ukrainian refugees.
The website mentioned the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, so Tolpeco called a UNHCR office in Budapest. But no one there could provide details, he said.
“Quite frankly, it was a kind of ‘not my job’ attitude that I got,” Tolpeco said.
He said he was hopeful that a big company like Airbnb would rise to the occasion and make its refugee housing program run more smoothly.
“It’s a great opportunity for Ukrainians and I applaud Airbnb — as long as it works,” Tolpeco said.