March 24 update with additional information: Landlord knew about illegal rentals, ignored safety issues
Two former tenants of Montreal’s historic Old Port building that burned down last Thursday say the building’s owner, Emile-Haim Benamor, was actively converting it into a pseudo-hotel — and harassing them to leave. They both feel lucky to be alive.
Meanwhile, an exclusive investigation by Ricochet has identified the operator of a short-term rental empire, one that included at least three illegal rental units in the du Port street building and at least one in another of Benamor’s buildings, as Tariq Hasan. In a 2019 interview, Hasan said his business model relied on partnering with landlords who were willing to look the other way in exchange for a cut of the profits.
One woman is dead, six are missing, and nine injured (including two in critical condition) after a five-alarm blaze tore through the three-story building in Montreal’s Old Port neighborhood on Thursday. The fire is being investigated by the Montreal police’s arson squad, and its cause is still unknown.
A few days before the fire Dania Zafar, a graphic designer from Toronto, traveled with a friend from the United States to Cambridge, Ontario. They were visiting childhood friend Fariha Usman, who they had known since they were in kindergarten in Pakistan. Usman told Ricochet in a phone interview they were reunited that weekend, before Zafar and her friend continued east to Montreal, planning to stay at an Airbnb at 135 Rue du Port.
Usman said that she last spoke to her friends on Wednesday night, when they Facetimed her from the rental. “They were telling me what they were going to do on Thursday,” she said.
“She was amazing,” Usman said, drawing a long breath. “They were super excited for spring break… She was full of life. I had never seen her worried about anything. Never been angry, never yelled. She was amazing,” she repeated.
Now, Usman is desperately trying to find out what happened to her friends. She hasn’t heard from them since.
“The landlord was fucking crazy, for sure one of the reasons that I left,” said one of Benamor’s former tenants who wished to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation. “He was telling us we wouldn’t be able to renew [the lease] next year. He was trying to evict people.”
“There were only three ‘real tenants’ left in the building,” which contained around 15 apartments, he said. “As soon as [a long-term tenant] left, it just became an Airbnb.”
Benamor, an attorney who has been described by a former tenant as “the bad version of Saul Goodman,” owned at least 21 other Montreal buildings as of 2021 either in his own name, or through his business EP7 Consultants Inc. His license to practice law was limited by the Barreau du Quebec in June 2021 after he was found guilty of tax evasion.
Through his lawyer, Benamor has asserted his innocence in the wake of last week’s tragic fire, denying any involvement with illegal short-term rentals and pinning the blame on a single tenant who he says sublet multiple apartments without his knowledge.
Benamor did not respond to an emailed request for comment, and no one answered the phone at his office or that of his lawyer.
“It's absolutely a lie what Emile's lawyer said about it being individual tenants renting their places from time to time. Wow, that's an insane lie,” said one of the former tenants of the building. “He devised a whole scheme where he would hide behind another guy who would run the whole thing in his name.”
That ‘guy’ was likely a man named Tariq Hasan.
A vast Airbnb empire
The connections between Tariq Hasan, a Montreal-based software engineer and short-term rental guru, and an Airbnb enterprise of at least 20 units, including many in the three-story building in the Old Port that tragically burned down on Thursday, are being scrubbed from the internet in real time.
Hasan’s listings on Airbnb and other short-term rental sites have been removed and his profile picture changed to a black square. A few hours after Ricochet viewed the profile, which had over 3,000 reviews tied to it as of yesterday morning, it disappeared entirely.
In a matter of hours yesterday, Hasan’s LinkedIn profile underwent significant changes. In the morning, he had a full profile which included his name and photo and listed a job as a software engineer at NielsenIQ and a Master’s degree in theoretical and mathematical physics from McGill University. He claims to have graduated with a perfect GPA.
At some point yesterday afternoon, his name was shortened to “Tariq H.”
After Ricochet reached out to him yesterday evening, he blocked the reporter, deleted his profile picture, and changed his name to a series of periods.
Hasan did not otherwise respond to a request for comment.
In a 2019 interview with Julian Sage, founder of shorttermsage.com — a website which claims to “help vacationpreneurs succeed with short term rentals” — Hasan sang the praises of his rapidly-expanding short term rental business and bragged about making five times his income as a software engineer. He also explained that his business model would be impossible without the active partnership of the landlords he worked with. That video, titled “3x your income with a short term rental business w/ Tariq Hasan,” was removed from the internet last night.
Hasan is actively trying to cover his tracks.
“Old Montreal Apartment - Near It All”
Insideairbnb.com, a website that compiles data from the short-term rental site, shows two now-deleted listings in the building owned by Benamor, posted by a man going by Ricky.
“Old Montreal Apartment - Near It All,” they both advertised. According to Inside Airbnb, the apartments were rented for $70 per night on average, with one rented out for 246 nights last year. Ricky had 20 short-term rentals available in the Ville-Marie neighbourhood — making him one of the largest renters in the borough.
Although “Ricky” had deleted his listings by the time we got there, his profile remained active on Airbnb, describing a prolific short-term renter who claimed to also work as a software engineer. There were over 3,000 reviews tied to his account — many of them negative — with some describing extremely unsafe conditions, including windows that were nailed shut, or units rented with no windows at all.
All serious fire safety violations.
“This place is disgusting. Reeks of cigarettes. Not cleaned - I found someone’s mouth retainer on the floor, garbage and so much dust/debris. Windows are all nailed closed so you cannot get fresh air,” one reviewer named Joe wrote in January. “Many large holes in walls, doors… AVOID THIS AIRBNB AT ALL COSTS.”
Another review from February left by someone named Kirsten said, “interesting being in the middle of the building with no windows.”
In addition to the Airbnb reviews, Ricochet’s investigation turned up additional listings on less popular vacation websites and short term rental indexes which hadn’t yet been purged that included the address — 135 Rue du Port — of the building owned by Benamor which burned down on Thursday.
Two former tenants of the now destroyed Old Port building both confirmed that “Ricky” was actually Tariq Hasan.
“Tariq had the vast majority of [Benamor’s] apartments for several years,” said one of the former tenants in an email to Ricochet, claiming that the relationship between the two men was “designed precisely so that, in the event that something like this would happen, he would be several steps removed and could say he had no clue.”
According to the Quebec business registry, Hasan registered Avenoir Inc., a short-term rental company, in 2019. Ricochet visited the home address listed in the registry, but was met by a current tenant who has lived there since at least 2020. He said that he actively receives mail in Hasan’s name, but has no idea who he is or when he might have lived there.
Ricochet also visited the listed business address, finding an office run by a co-working style company called Regus that rents mailing addresses and conference rooms in a high-rent downtown highrise.
In his own words
Hasan lays out his entire business model in his now deleted 2019 interview with shorttermsage.com.
According to Hasan, he partnered with property owners to convert long-term housing into short-term housing under his management. “I met a real-estate investor who actually doesn’t mind people taking his apartments and putting them up for short-term rental,” Hasan said about eight minutes into the interview.
“Initially you have to build a lot of confidence and trust with the person whom you’re trying to establish a deal - a working relationship,” he continued. “And then close the deal at the very end where you explain to him exactly what you’re going to do.”
According to Hasan, his operation wouldn’t be possible without the knowledge and consent of the building’s owners. And it was highly profitable.
Advice for people considering rental arbitrage? "If you're on the fence, just go for it. It will work out,” he said, noting the “tremendous opportunity for cash flow.” Hasan claimed it was easy to triple his income, and others could too, but failed to mention that the whole operation was unlicensed and illegal.
A free for all in Montreal
Despite provincial rental protection laws, short-term rental regulations and municipal bylaws restricting short-term rentals to specific streets in the city, and a severe housing crisis, there are still hundreds of illegal rentals in Montreal, the laws largely ignored and rarely enforced.
Craig Sauvé, a city councilor in Montreal’s Sud-Ouest borough, told Ricochet that the city wants nothing more than to crack down on illegal Airbnbs, but their hands are severely tied.
“In order to have a strong claim in court, in case we fine somebody and they contest it, the inspector has to sleep overnight in the Airbnb.”
The fines the city can issue are also limited to a few hundred dollars. Because of these factors the city has partnered with the more powerful provincial tax authority, Revenu Quebec, to inspect suspected illegal rentals. But while the province once deployed 20 inspectors to the city, interest appears to have waned in recent years.
“The province inspected something like 3,000 units last year, but there are over 13,000 Airbnbs in the city and over 90 per cent of them are illegal. They’re taking rental stock off the market, they’re unsafe and they cause nuisances in our neighbourhoods. So it’s not adequate, and what we’re seeing is they’re just completely flaunting the law.”
Infrequent inspections by provincial tax authorities and municipal authorities who don’t even attempt to inspect have led to a free for all. Sauvé explains the city set up stringent limits on Airbnbs, allowing them only on two major arteries where one might usually find hotels, but those rules are flagrantly ignored.
“Airbnb takes no responsibility, zero responsibility, and they ought to be liable. They absolutely know what's going on. And they're just completely lacking responsibility and accountability.
It's not okay to take rental units off the market in the middle of the housing crisis. It's not okay to have unsafe and unregulated commercial hotels in our neighbourhoods.”
Airbnb responded to a request for comment by sharing the same “thoughts and prayers” style statement from spokesperson Nathan Rotman that has been their only response since the disaster struck. They also noted, on background, that they have a program to offer free smoke detectors to certain hosts.
Montreal Mayor Valerie Plante held a press conference yesterday morning acknowledging the problem of illegal Airbnbs, lambasting the company for not respecting the law, and conceding that the issue is not easy. “I’m calling on (Quebec premier François Legault) to do his job to forbid any kind of renters who do not respect the law,” she said.
Tourism Minister Caroline Proulx told reporters that the provincial government is looking into adding further restrictions to the rules following the fatal fire. She said that they are also looking into the possibility of fining companies like Airbnb directly for offering rentals which violate the law.
“We need to start talking about banning Airbnb,” adds Sauvé, “and all the other platforms that are similar. It's not just Airbnb. But, you know, these are essentially commercial operations, opening up illegally, and paying nothing in taxes, causing a hell of a lot of nuisances and taking 10,000 units off the Montreal rental market.
Airbnb are acting like a bunch of cowboys. And they’re causing havoc in our city right now. This is not a consensual relationship. This is them coming in and trying to force cities into accepting this new reality.”
With additional reporting and research by Ethan Cox and Anupriya Dasgupta.