Fatal fire: Landlord knew about illegal rentals, ignored safety issues

At least sixteen units across three of Emile-Haim Benamor’s buildings were part of two separate Airbnb operations
The owner of the Old Montreal building that burned down in a deadly fire last week, Emile-Haim Benamor, covering his face with his jacket at a Viger Ave. East building today which still houses illegal Airbnbs. Photo by Zachary Kamel

Feature investigation by Zachary Kamel and Ethan Cox.

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A former employee of Emile-Haim Benamor, the owner of the Old Montreal building that burned down in a deadly fire last week, confirmed to Ricochet by phone that Benamor was aware units in at least three of his buildings were being rented on Airbnb.

Two separate entrepreneurs who ran short-term rental operations in Benamor’s buildings were “up front about their intention to use his units for Airbnb,” she said.

Meanwhile, a former housekeeper for Tariq Hasan, one of those entrepreneurs, said they cleaned 16 short-term rental units across three of Benamor’s buildings. They confirmed to Ricochet that Benamor was aware of the operation.

They also said that Benamor refused to spend money on repairs, including critical fixes to safety and fire hazards like a faulty electrical system, an unstable emergency stairway and a lack of emergency exits in the du Port building.

A former tenant named Buster Fraum who lived at the du Port building in 2020 and 2021 also told Ricochet that there were no functional smoke detectors at any point during their eleven month stay.

Four bodies have been recovered in the wake of the deadly fire that ripped through the Old Montreal building last Thursday morning. At least three others are still missing, while nine people were injured.

Got a tip? Have you stayed at the du Port property that burned down, or another owned by Benamor or managed by Hasan or Isabel? Did you complain to AirBnB? Please get in touch. Anonymity is an option. Email: zachary.kamel [@] protonmail.com

Earlier this morning, Ricochet was at one of Benamor’s buildings on Viger Ave. East, which still houses illegal Airbnbs, when the landlord and several associates exited the apartment.

Covering his face with the hood of his jacket as he came down the front stairs, he ran over to a nearby police car and began banging on the trunk, gesturing towards the journalist taking photos, but they drove off and Benamor walked briskly back to his apartment.

Despite persistent questions about the role of Airbnb in the tragic fire, and the announcement today of the provincial government’s intention to change the law to hold platforms like Airbnb accountable, some elements of the illegal business appear to be undisturbed. Ricochet can report that new Airbnb guests were seen arriving at the same Viger avenue building this evening. They are guests of the other entrepreneur, whose first name is Isabel according to a source.

New Airbnb guests arriving at the Viger street building owned by Emile-Haim Benamor on the evening of March 23rd.
Ricochet Media

System designed ‘so he could say he had no clue’

According to the 2021 Montreal tax assessment roll, Benamor owns at least 22 buildings across the island, including the building in Old Montreal that burned down last week.

Tariq Hasan, the man identified Tuesday by Ricochet as the entrepreneur running at least seven Airbnb units in 135 Rue du Port at the time it caught fire, declined to comment today by phone, and directed all further communication to his attorney, Alexandre B. Romano. Romano also declined to comment by email.

“Tariq had the vast majority of [Benamor’s] apartments for several years, but there were other ‘Tariqs’ before him. He would get rid of them after a few years and just continue the same scheme with other young guys,” wrote a former long-term tenant by email.

The housekeeper requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation, saying they believe Benamor to be dangerous. “He’s a bad person. I don’t think he cares about people. I think he has the responsibility for [these deaths].”

This 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,” he wrote, referring to the owner’s plausible deniability of responsibility with the fatal fire in Old Montreal.

All but one of the sources quoted in this story have requested anonymity due to a fear of reprisals, but Ricochet has verified their identities and in two cases their employment history with Benamor and Hasan, respectively, via pay stubs and public records.

Benamor’s lawyer, Alexandre Bergevin, has said in interviews that the landlord had no involvement in the Airbnb business. Neither Benamor nor Bergevin responded to requests to comment for this story.

‘Rats, mice, bed bugs and electrical problems’

The housekeeper, who worked for Hasan’s company Avenoir Inc. for several months last year, told Ricochet that in addition to seven or eight apartments located in the now destroyed building on Rue du Port, they also cleaned three short-term rentals at a building on Viger Ave. East, and five short-term rentals at another building on Notre-Dame St. East. All were run by Hasan in buildings owned by Benamor.

“Rats, mice, bed bugs and electrical problems,” plagued the buildings, they said. “The electric system was terrible. By plugging in two appliances at the same time, the electricity would go out for the whole building,” referring to 135 Rue du Port.

The housekeeper, who was friends with Camille Maheux, a long-term tenant of the building who died in the fire, said that Camille warned them not to go on the fire escape because it was dangerously unstable. She also corroborated previously reported accounts of windows nailed shut and insufficient emergency exits.

In a recent interview in French with Mario Dumont on 98.5 FM, Benamor’s lawyer claimed that there are smoke detectors in the apartments, but changing the battery was the tenant’s responsibility.

Property owner Emile-Haim Benamor asking police to remove a journalist from the sidewalk outside one of his buildings.
Zachary Kamel

However, according to the housekeeper, none of the short-term rentals they cleaned had functional smoke detectors. “I never felt safe working there.”

The housekeeper requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation, saying they believe Benamor to be dangerous. “He’s a bad person. I don’t think he cares about people,” they said, “I think he has the responsibility for [these deaths].”

Ads for units

Over in Westmount, Benamor was running a rooming house, with an ad posted to Facebook Marketplace advertising rooms for rent as recently as January. As the Montreal Gazette has reported, legal proceedings against him over improper leases, safety issues and a lack of cleanliness have been brought by the city and are currently ongoing.

Alonso Martinez Pena, a 40-year-old chef and roofer who came to Montreal from Mexico a little over a year ago signed one of those improper leases. He lived at the rooming house located at 3011 Saint-Antoine Street West for five months with his dog, eventually moving out March 1. He said it was a nightmare.

This 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,” referring to the owner’s plausible deniability of responsibility with the fatal fire in Old Montreal.

He described a bait and switch in which he was promised a room on an upper floor, but when he arrived there on move in day, was told he’d be living down below. A former employee confirmed that Benamor unexpectedly forced him into a basement room on the day he arrived.

Pena shared photos and videos with Ricochet, including a sink backing up with what he claims is raw sewage and an emergency exit door that he claims was screwed shut. The former employee didn’t want to answer when asked if the basement room was fit for human habitation.

In one video provided by Pena, he attempts to hand Benamor a letter of formal notice, which Benamor swats out of Pena’s hand while saying “give it to your mother.” He kicked it once it landed on the floor.

Pena has an open case at the Tribunal administratif du logement, an administrative tribunal in Quebec that deals with housing issues. According to a recent report in Le Devoir, Benamor has had at least 20 cases before the tribunal since 2020 brought forward by his tenants across eight different buildings.

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