Shelter in the Storm

Tracy Trave was getting desperate. It was Thursday afternoon, two days after Hurricane Sandy had abandoned New York City, and her rented room in Broad Channel, Queens, was still swimming in water.

Before the hurricane hit, she'd evacuated to a friend's studio apartment on the Lower East Side. When downtown Manhattan lost power, she relocated to a Days Inn on the Upper West Side. But as the hotel began raising rates, the 28-year-old nanny, who moved to New York from Charlotte, North Carolina, just two months ago, found herself stranded.

Trave scoured the Internet for rooms to rent, initially to no avail—until someone suggested Airbnb, the short-term accommodation website primarily for travelers. She soon found Lydia White's listing of an air bed in Williamsburg.

"She's like, the nicest person in the world," Trave says about her host, a 28-year-old graphic designer who sheltered her new friend for three nights, even though her out-of-town boyfriend had just come to visit. "She's gone above and beyond."

Trave paid $10 for her stay, as Airbnb has a $10 minimum for bookings (later waived for Sandy-related guests), but White would have been "happy to do it for free."

A week after Sandy, officials said that up to 40,000 people remained displaced because of home damage. Thousands were taken in by friends and family, and thousands more packed into ad hoc shelters, but there are many others who had nowhere to go. That's where the city's professional amateur hosts stepped up. Perhaps their established online social lodging networks could connect Sandy's victims to those who could give them, at the very least, an air mattress.

White was among the 250-plus Airbnb users who offered free or discounted housing on a specific storm-relief list, and there were 70 bookings in the days immediately following the hurricane. It might not be an overwhelming number, but it's something. "I think it's immensely important" for New Yorkers to support one another in a time like this, White says. "I'm just trying to help in the way that I can."

Similar websites, like Couchsurfing and HomeAway, got involved in the relief effort to varying degrees. But no platform was as successful as Airbnb at drumming up short-notice aid, and New York City took notice. On November 7, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a partnership with the website, praising it as an example of the "private sector using technology to find new ways to help people." There are currently more than 400 free listings on a new page.

And all this can be traced to one woman.

A week after Hurricane Sandy made landfall, Michelle "Shell" Martinez, a 36-year-old real estate agent and amateur upholsterer, was in her element, buzzing around her industrial loft in Brooklyn, providing herbal tea and homemade chocolate cake to seven guests: a California FEMA contractor who couldn't find a reasonable hotel; a couple whose downtown Manhattan apartment building was closed for repairs; a young woman visiting friends whose "plans went a little bit awry"; and three non-Sandy-related vacationers: two middle-age French ladies and a Belgian-Australian man.

Martinez has six bedrooms and ample couch/beanbag space in her 5,000-square-foot apartment, accented by an exposed-brick wall, ubiquitous flea market antiques, voluminous plants sprouting from huge clay pots, and a massive Picasso-esque painting on an easel in the living room.

She started using Airbnb two years ago for a combination of money, company, and adventure. Now she's "addicted" to the "fresh energy" of "people on vacation who are happy all the time," Martinez says, flashing a cheeky smile. "It's like crack!"

As Sandy barreled toward New York, Martinez felt like she needed to help those who might be rendered homeless, even if she wasn't yet sure that she'd be spared from the storm's wrath. "It was just sort of a blind hope that we would be," Martinez says. So she offered up her five available rooms for free, expressing confidence that Airbnb would forgo the $10 charge.

"It was amazing," Martinez says. Not only was she "inundated with e-mails from people wanting to come," but she also heard from many people who just wanted "to say thank you. They're like: 'Sorry, we don't need the room. We just really like that you're doing this.'"

Following Martinez's lead, Airbnb decided to waive their service fees—3 percent for hosts, 6 to 12 percent for guests—for storm-related crashing, as well as sending an e-mail to hosts and writing a blog post encouraging the community to help out. Martinez "opened her door to Sandy's victims, and that single act has inspired tons of other hosts across the city," says co-founder Joe Gebbia in a statement. "At Airbnb, we felt compelled to follow these examples."

Martinez saved the day for a young couple from the West Village, Kat Campbell and Will Earls. "We've been hopping around from friend to friend, but you can only stay in a studio apartment with four other people for so long," says Campbell, who calls Martinez "awesome."

Campbell and Earls spent three days as refugees in the loft. One night, Martinez came home to find them watching the original Star Wars on the living room projector. "They made themselves at home," Martinez says. "It's my favorite thing to see."

Meanwhile, Trave returned to Charlotte while she figured out her next move, unsure when or if she'd be able to return to the seaside in Queens. "All my friends in North Carolina always joke because New Yorkers have this stereotype that they're kind of mean," Trave says. "New York is honestly one of the nicest cities in the country. It really is. It just seems like everyone is trying to help people that are affected by the storm."

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