It’s no small task to help the recent stream of evacuees from Afghanistan rebuild their lives in the United States. As the resettlement programs director for the refugee agency World Relief Seattle, Medard Ngueita is helping nearly 130 evacuees find schools for their kids, navigate American grocery stores and even read a bus map.
The most daunting job of all, however, may be finding them places to live.
Some people stay with volunteers from local religious communities, while other evacuees stay with family or friends. But half of the Afghan evacuees he is helping in Seattle are staying in rentals on Airbnb, funded by Airbnb itself. The San Francisco company spends millions of dollars annually to give refugees and evacuees, which most recent arrivals from Afghanistan are characterized as, short-term places to stay when they arrive.
But that doesn’t mean Airbnb is helping them in the long run.
As more people convert apartments and homes into short-term rentals, researchers have found that one of the factors that makes housing unaffordable is Airbnb itself, according to an academic paper published this year. That study, which looked at data from 2011 through 2016, noted that as Airbnb takes housing units off the market, it drives up overall rents. In other words, the researchers found that in expensive housing markets like Seattle, $40 out of the $200 in average rent growth from 2014 to 2016 can be attributed to Airbnb. As a company, Airbnb grew even larger during the pandemic, while at the same time, rents in cities like Seattle jumped to over $2,200 in September, compared to $2,000 in the same month in 2020.
“If you reduce the supply, then the rents must go up,” Davide Proserpio, an assistant marketing professor at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, said in an interview. That ultimately means Airbnb is “creating more pressure for the long-term rental market.”
Other academic research has reached similar conclusions as Proserpio, including a 2020 study from Germany. In that instance, Airbnb said the data was “outdated,” adding that “home sharing can provide important economic benefits for families and support smart rules that allow home sharing to continue.”
The company’s growth does not appear to be declining. According to Airbnb’s annual report, the company nearly tripled gross bookings from 2016 to 2019, peaking at $37.9 billion, before falling back to $23.8 billion in 2020. In a letter to investors released on Thursday, Airbnb said that its third-quarter revenue reached $2.2 billion, its highest ever, and also reached record quarterly profits of $834 million. In that same letter, Airbnb also said that it had housed “over 3,000 Afghan refugees.”
Mattie Zazueta, an Airbnb spokesperson, said in a statement: “Airbnb.org’s focus is making sure that refugees have safe, comfortable spaces to live during their first days in a new country. While, of course, securing permanent housing for refugees is critical, resettlement agencies would also be the first to point out that the challenges to securing long-term housing are complex and dependent on a number of factors.”
Aid goes back years
Airbnb’s efforts to help those in need began in 2012, when the company invited hosts and subsidized them to open their homes for free to people displaced by Hurricane Sandy, which affected New York City and the surrounding region. Airbnb eventually branded this as “Open Homes.”
Airbnb’s Open Homes kicked into a higher gear in January 2017 when newly elected President Donald Trump issued an executive order, described by critics as a “Muslim Ban,” lowering the number of refugees admitted into the United States to a record low of 50,000. Airbnb, like many other Silicon Valley companies, immediately slammed Trump’s restrictions on immigration. CEO Brian Chesky wrote that the executive order was a “policy that I profoundly disagree with.”
In 2017 and 2018, Airbnb accelerated its financial support for refugee resettlement groups in the United States by donating $4 million to the International Rescue Committee to be paid over four years.
With the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the company said in a September blog post that it would supply temporary housing to 20,000 Afghan refugees worldwide and establish a $25 million Refugee Fund as well.
Around 60,000 more Afghans are expected to resettle in the coming months as they move off military facilities in the U.S. and abroad. These evacuees typically include individuals and families of those who worked for the American government, military or companies in Afghanistan over the last two decades. In short, this record number of new arrivals are all going to need places to live, and temporary Airbnbs lasting only a few weeks only go so far.
Ngeuita said that finding permanent places to live for refugees has gotten much harder since he began working with World Relief Seattle several years ago.
“Somewhere in 2018 it started to get tougher as more and more people were moving into Seattle,” Ngeuita said. “So, refugees were competing with Americans moving from other states due to the booming tech jobs in our area.”
For a resource-strapped refugee support network of government agencies and their partners, Airbnb has largely been a welcome relief because the company is effectively subsidizing temporary housing for refugees.
That’s because resettlement agencies receive a one-time payment of $2,275 per person from the federal government to help ease refugees’ and evacuees’ transitions. Of that amount, $1,225 goes directly to the refugee or evacuee, and is meant to last 90 days. So in a family of four, that amount comes to just $4,900, which barely covers three months rent for a hypothetical $1,500 Seattle-area apartment, to say nothing of all other expenses.
In the years before Airbnb’s support of refugee organizations, much of those one-time payments covered temporary housing, often at hotels.
But with Airbnb’s money, more of those individual, taxpayer-funded cash payments can be spent on other things like food, school supplies, furniture and clothing. Families also often prefer Airbnbs over hotels.
“It’s so much warmer for people to stay in an actual house with a kitchen,” said Sarah Coleman, an associate director of programs at Church World Service, based in Virginia. “It’s always much better where they can have their own private space and start to settle in.”
Still, while refugee agencies say they are grateful for Airbnb’s financial assistance, they agree it does not fix the bigger problem of finding people long-term housing.
That’s especially difficult in a city like Seattle. According to Zumper, a real estate analytics firm, Seattle is the 14th-most expensive rental market in the country, just below Santa Ana, California, and just above Atlanta. Ngueita, himself a former refugee from Chad, who wrote his master’s thesis on refugee housing, said he rarely looks for permanent housing for refugees inside the city of Seattle. He sticks to less expensive suburbs like Federal Way, Kent or even Tacoma.
“We are always looking for the cheaper option out of what is available,” he said. “A two-bedroom can go anywhere from $1,400 to $1,900. I even reached out to someone who is talking about $2,000,” referring to an apartment in Federal Way.
But Ngueita notes that paying for temporary housing does not fix the broader problems these families face of settling into a community and building a new life.
“These solutions, like Airbnb, I am thankful for it, because at least they are doing something,” Ngueita said. “But I always tell people that it is a bandage on a cut. The cut is still there. You are just covering it up.”