A damaged home rests on one side along the beach in the Belle Harbor section of Queens, N.Y., on Nov. 5 in the wake of Superstorm Sandy.
A damaged home rests on one side along the beach in the Belle Harbor section of Queens, N.Y., on Nov. 5 in the wake of Superstorm Sandy. Craig Ruttle/AP
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.