Did San Francisco-based Airbnb profit from disaster as California’s Caldor Fire burned in Tahoe?

You may also have noticed that those public messages — either admonishing the San Francisco-based tech giant or asking for its help — were not always well received. While Tahoe residents were evacuating their homes, frightened they wouldn’t be able to return, the sight of would-be vacationers pleading for refunds on Twitter rubbed many the wrong way. 

Dont use this hashtag to whine, do you think youre going to get any sympathy from folks who are looking for information about the fire destroying their homes, their friends homes, their neighborhoods?

— Margot Brightly (@BrightlyMargot) August 26, 2021

Yet for hosts and guests alike, Airbnb’s response to the Caldor Fire raises serious questions about its “extenuating circumstances” policies and how it handles natural disasters like wildfires. As one host, Kaia Crawford, told SFGATE: “Airbnb is penalizing both the guest AND the homeowner, which to me is just abhorrent. It’s profiting off a very upsetting situation.”

In a place with longstanding friction between locals and tourists, it’s not surprising that some of that simmering anger would resurface during a stressful, painful time for the region. Still, what is often missed in important, big picture discussions about overtourism, Zoom towns and gentrification is the way that individual people are mostly just living their lives in these places — trying to do the right thing, make a living, maybe take a vacation once in a while. But in communities that are being transformed by tourism, residents are pitted against outsiders, homeowners against renters, and everyone, it seems, is at least somewhat at the mercy of Airbnb. And while Airbnb isn’t alone in their opaque cancellation policies, they are by far the largest vacation rental website, with more than 6 million listings around the world as of 2019.

At a time when climate change is expected to lead to more frequent and extreme weather events, including wildfires like the one currently threatening Sequoia National Park, it’s reasonable to expect more communities will find themselves in the situation that Lake Tahoe was in at the end of August and early September. 

So as the Caldor Fire was threatening South Lake Tahoe and the region’s air quality spiraled into some of the worst in the world, I reached out to several of the people who posted complaints about Airbnb’s handling of the disaster. Among them was Ryan Kunselman. 

Kunselman, who lives in Colorado, is a few years out of college and hadn’t seen his mom on the East Coast in two years when he and his girlfriend booked a trip to Tahoe for late August. Because all three were coming from outside the region, and the fires were not yet the national news they would soon become, the family didn’t realize how bad it was until they were driving down to the lake, Kunselman told SFGATE.

Taweewat Smitapindhu and his wife Piapatsorn, both from Thailand, enjoy their vacation at South Lake Tahoe as firefighters tackle the Caldor Fire on Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021, in South Lake Tahoe, Calif.

Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

When the family stopped for gas, they saw a post warning that hiking trails were closed. Then, as they approached the Airbnb in Stateline, Nevada, the sun turned red and ash began falling from the sky. By the time they reached their rental, the Air Quality Index was 500, according to Kunselman’s recollection. They didn’t even step inside what had been described as a cozy, quiet condo near the lake they’d reserved several months before. Instead, they fled the smoke for Sacramento and, ultimately, Yosemite. 

Kunselman first contacted the rental’s Airbnb host. “The minute I mentioned a refund,” he wrote SFGATE in an email, “she would not contact me back and completely ignored me.” 

Airbnb sided with the host. In a message Kunselman forwarded to SFGATE, the company writes, “We understand that this might not be what you’d hoped for, but we came to this outcome because the listing is not in California nor directly impacted by the El Caldor [sic] wildfire.” The response seems to suggest that because the house — located in a town named for its location straddling the border — sat on the Nevada, not California, side of Stateline, the company’s “Extenuating Circumstances” policy did not apply. 

The policy, as described on Airbnb’s website, dictates how cancellations are handled when “unforeseen events beyond your control arise after booking and make it impracticable or illegal to complete your reservation.”

To Kunselman, a wildfire raging nearby and air quality so unhealthy it’s considered “hazardous” for everyone, including healthy adults, had pretty clearly met those guidelines. So Airbnb’s decision came as a surprise. Even worse, it seemed final. “Our review is complete now,” the message continued, “and we won’t be able to offer additional support on this case at this time.”

A sign is seen near Taylor Creek along Highway 89 as residents remain evacuated because of the Caldor Fire burning near South Lake Tahoe, Calif., on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021.

A sign is seen near Taylor Creek along Highway 89 as residents remain evacuated because of the Caldor Fire burning near South Lake Tahoe, Calif., on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021.

Jane Tyska/Digital First Media via Getty Images

The owner of Kunselman’s rental was not overly forthcoming when contacted for comment. She did share that Kunselman’s characterization of his experience “is not fully accurate and is incomplete.” But, she added, the case was ongoing and it was her understanding that he would receive a full refund. That was news to Kunselman, who had been told his case was closed. 

When I asked Airbnb if they could comment on Kunselman’s situation, they responded, “Without having the opportunity to identify the reservation and look into the details, we can’t comment.” By the time I followed up with Kunselman for his reservation information, Airbnb had reversed course and agreed to the refund, which he attributed to the company having been contacted by this reporter. 

Social media backlash

Kunselman’s five-day reservation in Stateline put him out about $2,200. So when it looked increasingly unlikely he would get his money back, he took to Twitter in a since deleted post. 

But while Kunselman was successful in getting the attention of both Airbnb and reporters like me, his post, asking Airbnb for help with his refund, also provoked an onslaught of angry responses. “Dont use this hashtag to whine,” wrote @brightlymargot. “[D]o you think youre going to get any sympathy from folks who are looking for information about the fire destroying their homes, their friends homes, their neighborhoods?” Another simply read, “Cry about it.” 

Hi Ryan, thank you for bringing this to our attention. We would like to take a closer look at this matter. Please send us a DM with the email address associated to your Airbnb account along with additional details on the issue that you have, so we can assist accordingly. https://t.co/WCQEFGIlXC

— Airbnb Help (@AirbnbHelp) August 24, 2021

While some of the backlash to Kunselman’s tweet had to do with his use of the Caldor Fire hashtag — around which evacuees, fire victims and volunteers were organizing to exchange information and help one another — others seemed to blame him for not having booked a rental with a more lenient cancellation policy or shamed him for asking for a refund at all. One read, simply, “Waaaah.”

While perhaps understandable, this animosity raises the question of whether your average Airbnb user — renters and hosts — are its rightful recipients. Because, as anyone who has spent hours on hold with customer service knows, social media can sometimes seem like the only — or, at least, best — recourse when a seemingly powerless person is wronged by a large, powerful company. 

And, for many of us, a vacation is a luxury, yes, but a rare one — one for which we plan and save for months or years. During the pandemic, a lot of us put off seeing friends and family, celebrating milestones, getting married and honoring lost relatives. These long-planned trips are weighted with meaning and represent a real investment — an investment in relationships, in mental health, in joy. These things are, of course, privileged. But they also seem like things most people should have access to. 

A smoky sunset is seen over Lake Tahoe in this view from Lakeside Beach in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., on Sunday, Sept. 6, 2021.

A smoky sunset is seen over Lake Tahoe in this view from Lakeside Beach in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., on Sunday, Sept. 6, 2021.

Jane Tyska/Digital First Media via Getty Images

It seems fair, then, to ask why the average Airbnb user should quietly accept the loss of thousands of dollars while a corporation that had almost $3.4 billion in revenue last year profits during a disaster? In response to a question about whether these policies could cost the company customers, a spokesman defended Airbnb by citing this publication. “[A]s per SF Gate’s own reporting, Airbnb appears to be the only large short-term rental platform offering extenuating circumstances refunds for this fire.”

Heeding the call to stay away

Candace Kim was in a different, but equally frustrating, position. Unlike Kunselman, Kim, who lives in Los Angeles, wasn’t caught off guard. With a Tahoe trip planned for the week after Labor Day, she had been closely following the Caldor Fire. And, as her travel date got closer, and the news from the region grew more concerning, she contacted her Airbnb host. 

She was less concerned about smoke, she said, than something else: Tahoe area tourism officials were asking visitors to stay away. She’d read the news stories and followed the situation in the Sierra and, while there was conflicting guidance, just didn’t feel like she should go. “I saw the worsening condition and also the pleas from locals at Lake Tahoe,” she wrote in an email to SFGATE, “and decided it made sense to pull out.”

Gavin Newsom had declared a state of emergency in the region, and though Nevada’s governor, Steve Sisolak, took a bit longer, he’d done the same days before. But when Kim contacted her Airbnb host, she was told that the rental’s “strict” cancellation policy continued to apply. The host, Kim said, “insisted that her North Tahoe Airbnb is safe from the fires, and said she does not offer refunds or cancellations because of wildfire smoke.” When Kim responded that her reason for canceling was “that travel to the area is heavily advised against,” the host said they would refund half of the reservation cost.

An empty restaurant is seen after a mandatory evacuation was ordered because of the Caldor Fire in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021.

An empty restaurant is seen after a mandatory evacuation was ordered because of the Caldor Fire in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021.

Jae C. Hong/AP

Based on the emergency declarations and local tourism boards advising against travel, Kim said she felt Airbnb’s “Extenuating Circumstances” policy should apply. The language seemed clear in referring to “Government declared local or national emergencies, epidemics, pandemics, and public health emergencies.” But when she contacted the company, she was told her reservation didn’t qualify because her Airbnb wasn’t in an active evacuation zone. (The evacuation orders in the Tahoe Basin had more to do with county and state lines than any other factor.)

Airbnb responded to Kim’s concerns by assuring her “the fire is far from the host’s place” and “her place is safe.” Even after Kim submitted documentation that the Lake Tahoe Visitors Bureau site said “travel to Lake Tahoe is not advised or safe,” that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had designated the Caldor Fire a declared disaster, and Gov. Newsom had declared a state of emergency in Placer County, where the Airbnb Kim had reserved is located, the company would not budge. 

Kim ultimately decided to cancel her trip anyway and take the financial hit. She doesn’t, however, blame her host, who offered a full refund if they were able to fill Kim’s reservation dates and, when they weren’t, “was nice enough” to give a partial refund. She said she understood why the host would feel entitled to some money, since it’s their livelihood. But she faults Airbnb for not honoring its own policy and for leaving it to the host and guest to “sort out between themselves,” she told SFGATE. “I don’t want to be that dramatic person that says I’ll never use Airbnb again but I certainly will think twice!”

When asked about Kim’s situation, an Airbnb spokesperson said her reservation did not qualify for a refund because Airbnb activated their extenuating circumstances policy on Aug. 17 and Kim made her reservation Aug. 18. Airbnb also clarified that the explanations Kim was given for why she wouldn’t be refunded “were simply the ambassador relaying what the host was saying and why [the host] was choosing to uphold her cancellation policy.”

The hosts

I messaged each of the hosts with whom Kunselman and Kim had reserved rentals. Kim’s host, who agreed to speak candidly if she could remain anonymous, said she wished Airbnb would make a blanket announcement, as they did during the COVID-19 shutdown. So then there would be no ambiguity about whether the area is open or not and which set of refund and cancellation rules apply. 

The host, who lives in another home on the property, said she understood why guests would be concerned. But the rentals are her income, she said, adding that she uses that money to offset the below-market rent for an older man who has lived on the property for years. She also made one of the larger houses available for evacuees and, she said, installed HEPA air filters in all the cabins. 

A sign covered in fire retardant warns about outdoor fires in a burned residential neighborhood during the Caldor Fire in Twin Bridges, Calif., Sept. 1, 2021.

A sign covered in fire retardant warns about outdoor fires in a burned residential neighborhood during the Caldor Fire in Twin Bridges, Calif., Sept. 1, 2021.

JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images

During the initial stages of the pandemic, she explained, Airbnb credited the hosts some of their losses, which, she said, “would be the right thing to do in this case.” 

The North Tahoe host is “wary,” she said, of Airbnb’s system for determining which reservations meet the extenuating circumstances guidelines. “They don’t share with the hosts or the guests what the exact criteria is,” she said. Airbnb granted a full refund to two of her guests that requested cancellations because of smoke, which meant the host received nothing. But more than a dozen others were rejected, according to the host. “I just wonder how they make their decisions,” she added. “Possibly they don’t want to make that public so that people don’t manipulate the system?” 

But the lack of transparency seems to be exacerbating the frustration of both travelers and hosts. 

Kaia Crawford, another host, who described herself as a 17-year resident of South Lake Tahoe and a former firefighter, expressed her disappointment with Airbnb — as well as competitors like VRBO, Homeaway and others — for their lack of what she called “community support” during a difficult time for the region. 

“It’s been tough to reach them and get an actual human being on the phone,” she wrote in an email. She also felt that there were “mixed signals” from the company about who is supposed to cancel the reservation and the consequences of a cancellation. “Airbnb is penalizing both the guest AND the homeowner,” she wrote, “which to me is just abhorrent. It’s profiting off a very upsetting situation.” 

One of Crawford’s biggest complaints about Airbnb’s policy is something many guests might not be aware of: When a host cancels a reservation, even when requested, the host is not only voluntarily losing rental income but can be penalized in other, more lasting ways. For homeowners like her, who preemptively canceled reservations during the Caldor Fire — in large part to lessen the congestion created by visitors — “they are sort of blacklisted,” she wrote. They’re “put on a ‘bad child’ list of canceling too many reservations even though the situation called for it.” Even for hosts willing to accept the financial hit of refunding a reservation, the long-term loss of, say, “Super Host” status is a tougher pill to swallow. 

Airbnb disputes Crawford’s claim. “[A]s it relates to the area where we’ve implemented our Extenuating Circumstances policy, none of this is accurate. Our policy makes clear that Hosts in the impacted area are allowed to cancel reservations penalty-free, meaning there are no cancellation fees or impacts to their Superhost statuses.”

A follow-up question asking what determines the area where the policy is implemented and how either a host or a guest would know if they’re considered “impacted by an event covered by this Policy” was not immediately returned.  

Tahoe fights back

Crawford described Tahoe as a “tight community” and said that many of the homeowners were actively trying to discourage visitors during the fire so that firefighters would have a “smooth path” without additional people complicating their work. “We live up here, WE know what it’s like, and have a much, much better idea of what is happening,” she wrote, “and for us to be penalized for being pro-active is just ridiculous!”  

According to Crawford, when the rental companies, including Airbnb, denied requests for refunds — even partial refunds — “the guests thought, well, may as well make the best of a bad situation and go up anyway.” Crawford pleaded with people on social media to stay away. “When that didn’t work, I began reaching out and blasting Airbnb and others on social media to try and get their attention.”  

“[T]here was zero communication from the big rental companies and zero attempts at compensation of some sort,” she wrote. “[Th]e homeowners can’t afford to lose money any more than the guest can, however, it would have been nice to at least get their assistance to at least TRY and make a bad situation less so.”

When I asked an Airbnb spokesperson to comment on why hazardous smoke isn’t considered an extenuating circumstance, he said that air quality has been included in the policy’s “activation” and that, “Guests can contact our Community Support team if they believe their reservation qualifies due to air quality.” 

In this Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021, file photo, an empty beach is seen after a mandatory evacuation was ordered because of the Caldor Fire in South Lake Tahoe, Calif.

In this Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021, file photo, an empty beach is seen after a mandatory evacuation was ordered because of the Caldor Fire in South Lake Tahoe, Calif.

Jae C. Hong/AP

But at least some Airbnb users, both guests and hosts, have been unsatisfied by the company’s response. Candace Kim’s would-be host in North Tahoe said she still doesn’t know why some cancellations are approved and refunded and others aren’t — “if those guests were just lucky” with the “support team” person they got. “It’s unclear to me,” she wrote, “how they interpret their extenuating circumstances policy.”

Crawford was more strident in her criticism of Airbnb’s handling of the Caldor Fire. “We up here in Lake Tahoe are a COMMUNITY!! We stick together and we would appreciate it if the big companies acted like they are part of our community because let’s call it for what it truly is…..we are a money-making machine for them.

“These companies…..especially Airbnb…..their motto is ‘community’….well, it would be really awesome if they started acting like one.”

Fortunately, the Caldor Fire is increasingly contained and the city of South Lake Tahoe was spared, even as many hundreds of homes were lost in El Dorado County. But the story of how Airbnb, and other large rental companies, handle these cases goes beyond one disaster.

Airbnb’s extenuating circumstances information page already makes clear that not all disasters fall under its policy. What is covered: “Natural disasters, acts of God, large-scale outages of essential utilities, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, and other severe and abnormal weather events.” What’s not: “weather or natural conditions that are common enough to be foreseeable in that location,” which, the website clarifies, includes “hurricanes occurring during hurricane season in Florida.”

The obvious question then is whether there comes a point when wildfires in the American West are so common as to be foreseeable? And, if so, what does that mean for Airbnb’s millions of customers — hosts dependent on rental income for their livelihood and travelers trying to plan an escape during unpredictable times?

When I asked Airbnb whether wildfires might someday be excluded from the company’s extenuating circumstances protection, the response was noncommittal. “At this time, I cannot comment on future adjustments or changes to this policy.”

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