Displaced by the storm, Harvey evacuees finding refuge in Austin homes

Austin property owners are using Airbnb and HomeAway to let storm victims use their space for free or at a discount.

Posted August 31st, 2017

Kimberly Walters grew antsy Sunday in a Dallas hotel room as Harvey began its deadly assault on Texas. 

Walters -- a high school assistant principal from suburban Houston -- was anxious about the steep personal expenses her family would be to escape the storm’s wrath.

As the bill for her hotel stay mounted, Walters decided to hunt online for a more affordable place for her family. She came across Airbnb listings offering Harvey evacuees free places to stay

And with just a few clicks, Walters rented part of Brent Bellm’s 5,671-square-feet home in west Austin.

“I put in a request to book it and he called me right back,” Walters said. By Sunday night, Walters, her two school-age daughters and a Maltipoo dog named Prince had snuggled in.

For Bellm, CEO of Austin software startup BigCommerce, it was a chance to be charitable. 

“I decided the best thing I could to help was to host people, and so I created a listing from scratch in about 30 minutes,” he said.

Last week, online vacation rental website Airbnb launched a campaign to encourage hosts in cities like Austin, Dallas and San Antonio to consider opening their homes, without charge, to Harvey evacuees.  More than 500 homeowners agreed to do so, including many in Austin. Airbnb said.

“We’re very proud of our community for opening their homes,” said Kellie Bentz, head of global disaster response and relief at Airbnb. 

Vacation rental websites such as Airbnb and HomeAway allow homeowners to rent rooms or entire houses on a short-term basis.   

But in times of crisis, this vast database of available homes can also be used as a way to find Good Samaritans willing to open their doors to house storm victims. 

Stephen Spillman/FOR AMERICAN-STATESMANScarlett Bellm, 6, Landon Bellm, 10, and Alayna Walters, 9, pet Scout, the Bellm family dog, at their house in West Austin on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2017. 

Thanks, Sandy

Any Harvey refugees who stayed for free at an Airbnb listing this week can thank Hurricane Sandy.

Bentz said the idea for allowing hosts to rent rooms for free stemmed from Sandy, when an Airbnb host wanted to open his home to survivors of the hurricane, which wreaked havoc on the East Coast in 2012. 

Airbnb worked with its engineers to create an option to reduce rates to zero, and has used this feature during a number of disasters since, including the terrorist attack in Barcelona earlier this year and Hurricane Matthew in 2016. 

During Hurricane Harvey, Airbnb initially only activated its “zero cost” listings in cities such as Dallas, San Antonio and Austin but has since expanded it into the Houston area and  into cities in Louisiana. These listings will expire on Sept. 25, the company said.

Some Harvey evacuees managed to snag some enviable digs. Sean Greenberg owns a two-bedroom apartment above Allens Boots on South Congress Avenue that he rents on Airbnb. (His father owns Allens Boots and he’s the director of operations.) 

When Greenberg changed the listing price to zero to accommodate Harvey evacuees, he was inundated with requests. He had to be on guard for people who weren’t storm victims and who were trying to take advantage of free housing, he said. 

“We got this one who was trying to book it for five nights,” he said. “She said she was escaping the hurricane from San Antonio. She was clearly looking for a fun free weekend in Austin.”

He eventually ended up renting it for free to first responders from Corpus Christi, and then a couple from Richmond, Texas, which is southwest of Houston. “We just happened to have some gaps in our bookings,” Greenberg said. “It’s obviously the least we can do.”

Sean GreenbergSean Greenberg rented this apartment above Allens Boots for free to Harvey evacuees.

Airbnb vs. HomeAway

Of the two major online vacation rental websites, Austin-based HomeAway and Airbnb, it was Airbnb that moved more quickly and aggressively to offer housing to Harvey evacuees, said homeowners who use both sites for their listings.

It wasn’t until Thursday, after Tropical Storm Harvey was well on its way inland, that HomeAway issued a tweet encouraging homeowners who wanted to rent their homes at a discount or for free to evacuees to fill out an online form

A HomeAway spokesman said the company is waiving service fees associated with bookings by Harvey evacuees. 

Some homeowners noted they didn’t need an official blessing from HomeAway to offer up their listings at a reduced rate to Harvey evacuees. Any homeowner can negotiate their own rates, though there are associated fees involved from HomeAway. 

Austin homeowner Gregory Cribbs said he used HomeAway to house evacuees at three of his properties at discounted rates. 

One home housed three couples, all military families from Corpus Christi, he said. Another home was being used by family from Houston until the roads were clear enough to head back. A third house had a family from Matagorda, which was under mandatory evacuation orders.

Bellm, the homeowner who took in the Walters family, acknowledged the irony of using Airbnb to find Harvey evacuees to stay in his home -- he previously was chief operating officer of HomeAway, which is now owned by Expedia. 

“I used Airbnb because my No. 1  priority was to help people,” Bellm said. “Airbnb has done a far better job than HomeAway advertising itself as a place for folks to find housing.”

Opening their home

When Bellm decided to open up his home, he initially put his one-bedroom pool house on Airbnb.

The first group of evacuees he took in were German-based exchange students who were attending Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi and woman and her elderly mother, also from Corpus Christi. The students were shell-shocked because they had just arrived in Texas, he said. 

Because his first guests left by the end of the weekend, Bellm was able to take in Walters and her daughters.

When Walters pulled up to Bellm’s house on Sunday evening, she said she was speechless. 

“I didn’t expect them to live in such a gorgeous place,” she said. “We would have stayed anywhere at that point.”

Tearfully, Walters said she felt guilty staying in such a nice home while so many Houstonians were struggling. “We are very blessed, because we have family and friends who are flooded in and lost everything. I just feel a lot of guilt.”

The Bellms have welcomed them in, she said, sharing dinners with them and playing games with their girls. Thankfully, their dogs get along.

Walters has since learned her home, in the Houston suburb of Tomball, did not flood. But if she had stayed, rising waters would have trapped her in the neighborhood for days. “I’m really amazed at the devastation around us - and that we’ve been protected from that,” she said.

Stephen Spillman/FOR AMERICAN-STATESMANBellm family dog named Scout, a 4 year old Australian labradoodle, plays with the Walters family dog named Prince Rogers Nelson, a 10 month old maltipoo, at the Bellm home in west Austin, Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2017.