Two years ago the tenants of a six-plex in Montreal’s Mile End neighborhood were evicted by the building’s new owners — but not before launching a small rebellion. As the province struggled under a nightly curfew, the independent artists that called 5219 Saint Urbain street home, some for nearly two decades, lawyered up and fought back.
“We believe the eviction is in bad faith … and relocating during a pandemic and the current economic uncertainty is onerous,” wrote one of the tenants in her application to the provincial housing tribunal. “I have been in my apartment for close to 20 years and pay $650 for a five and a half (a three bedroom apartment).” Despite their best efforts, the building’s tenants were eventually pushed out.
All six leases were then handed over to a man willing to pay $2,743 per month for each apartment, more than quadruple the previous rent. The building had been quietly converted into an unlicensed and illegal Airbnb ghost hotel — one that was still in operation until earlier this week, when its listings quietly disappeared shortly after Ricochet sent a list of questions to Airbnb.
The king of short-term rentals
As part of our ongoing national investigation into platforms like Airbnb and their role in the housing crisis, we’ve been tracking and identifying the largest players in some of Canada’s hottest rental markets. These property owners and entrepreneurs operate vast networks of unlicensed, and often illegal, ghost hotels.
In Montreal, one name kept coming up as we looked into the largest operators on Airbnb: Mike Firmin.
Those six Mile End leases aren’t the only ones in Firmin’s possession in Montreal. His company, Leasing Kings, boasts thousands of apartments available to book across several major cities in North America. Ricochet’s investigation has discovered that Firmin ran at least four hosting accounts which used a variety of aliases and stock photos—all of them verified by Airbnb.
“A user’s public-facing profile photo or name is not required to match the information provided directly to Airbnb for our identity verification process,” said a spokesperson for Airbnb by email. “Users are not obligated to use their legal name and/or the name or the photo on their government-issued ID for their profile.”
Firmin was, until recently, one of the largest Airbnb hosts in Montreal, according to data from Inside Airbnb, a website that collects data on short-term rentals from around the world. At its peak in May, Firmin’s operation included over 70 listings spread across at least 15 buildings in Montreal alone. All of these listings included license numbers ostensibly issued by the Corporation de l'industrie touristique du Québec, which regulates short-term rentals.
Using data obtained from the provincial government via an access to information request, Ricochet has determined that all of the licence numbers on Firmin’s Airbnb listings are fraudulent. Many of his listings are also in violation of by-laws meant to regulate short term rentals at the borough level.
Despite dozens of reviews describing horrific conditions, including windowless rooms, blood-stained sheets, bed bugs, unsafe wiring and mold-covered walls, his listings remained active until this week, when his main profile disappeared. Several smaller accounts also involved in his operation were, however, still active as of publication time.
One source claimed negative reviews were inexplicably scrubbed from ‘Mike’s’ profile. Over the course of this investigation, Ricochet observed dozens of negative reviews disappear. Firmin describes them as “fake” reviews, and says they were removed by Airbnb at his request.
“There are limited circumstances in which we may remove a review,” said the Airbnb spokesperson. “For instance, if the review violates our content policy by including private or confidential information, or discriminatory, violent or threatening content; if the review contains no relevant information about the reviewer’s experience with the Host or listing; or if it is determined a review is influenced by extortion, threats, or other forms of manipulation.” The reviews which Ricochet observed disappearing didn’t appear to fall into any of these categories.
Ricochet was also unable to find any company registered under the name Leasing Kings in Quebec. Sources familiar with the operation have claimed that this was a cash business—bringing in approximately $50,000 per month in Montreal alone. Firmin disputes this claim and offered to send Ricochet his business’s registration number with Quebec’s business registry, but had not followed through by the time of publication.
A ‘perfect storm of profiteering off of housing.’
The regulations governing short-term rentals across Quebec have been tightening — glacially. At both the municipal and provincial level, new rules are being hurried into place in an attempt to reign in what’s been dubbed a new “wild west” by David Wachsmuth, a professor of urban planning at McGill University who focuses on STRs and their impact on the Canadian housing market.
Part of that wild west is a short-term rental profit cycle that begins with the eviction of long-term tenants paying affordable rent. Leases are then signed over to someone like Firmin at a much higher rate, these ghost hotel operators consent to inflated rent increases (circumventing provincial rent control), and ultimately the building is sold at a grossly inflated price due to its now locked-in high rental revenue. A process Mohammad-Afaaq Mansoor, a community organizer with the Comité d’action de Parc-Extension, calls a “perfect storm of profiteering off of housing.”
This is the same business model that was used by Emile Benamor, the owner of several buildings across Montreal that were rented out to one tenant who converted the apartments into illegal STRs. These rentals had a laundry list of unsafe conditions and multiple complaints were sent by guests to Airbnb — some of which were ignored. One of Benamor’s buildings in Old Montreal burned down this spring, killing seven people, six of whom were tourists.
Interviews with Firmin’s former business partner, other property owners in business with him and guests who have stayed in his Montreal apartments paint a grim picture of a vicious cycle in which Montrealers are forced out of their homes, tourists stay in unsafe and unregulated rooms, and property owners, property managers and shareholders in platforms like Airbnb get rich quick.
Milking rental properties for every penny
According to Quebec’s land register, Yosef Rabi and Leah Kohn bought 5219 - 5229 Saint Urbain street in July 2020 for $1.9 million. At the time, the building’s tenants, some of whom had lived there for nearly 20 years, were paying under $700 per month for three bedroom apartments in Montreal’s Mile End neighborhood. 14 months later, the empty building was sold to 9447 3386 QUEBEC INC. for $2.3 million in a $400,000 windfall for Rabi and Kohn.
The sole administrator and major shareholder of that numbered company is real estate titan Aaron Drazin. “The Drazin family has been at the forefront of real estate in Canada for over a century,” states his company’s website, which claims “several million square feet” of commercial and residential real estate across Canada and New York City.
At some point following the purchase of the building on Saint Urbain, Drazin signed over the empty units to Firmin, the rents now four times higher than when it had long-term tenants. When contacted by Ricochet, former tenants declined an interview, not wishing to revisit the experience of losing their homes. “It was quite a traumatic couple of years that we went through and I don’t want to talk about it,” said one former tenant when reached by phone.
Two years after its purchase, the building is once again on the market for $3.1 million. “Situated in the vibrant and culturally rich Mile-End, renowned for its artistic ambiance, trendy cafes, and eclectic shops,” states the building’s ad. “The 6plex presents an excellent revenue potential, currently generating an impressive average monthly rental income of $2,743 across all units.”
“Right now there is currently one tenant who is renting out all six of them,” said real estate agent Jean Fortin when asked to confirm the details of his advertisement by a journalist posing as an interested buyer. “He’s been running this place for two years now, and he has a lease signed with the owner all the way to 2024 … and yes, there are six leases signed for $2,743 for each unit,” he said, naming Leasing Kings as the business in control of the master lease. “The owner of the building, they own a lot of buildings, they just figured If this tenant can just pay for all my expenses and give me my gross rent that I collect every single year, I have no problem with that.”
When asked directly, however, Fortin denied that the building’s units were being used for Airbnb or other short-term rentals.
Six affordable apartments, some of which were rented to the very artists who make Mile End “vibrant and culturally rich,” permanently removed from the city’s rental market. While Firmin’s short-term rental business is unlicensed and operating outside the law, Drazin signing his building over to Firmin at a massive price increase appears to be legal, exploiting a loophole in the province’s weak rent control regulations.
“It's rent control only if the tenant fights it, which isn’t really a rent control, it's more a rent price regulation in the event a tenant wants to contest a rent increase,” said Mansoor. “If a tenant doesn’t, then there is no rent control.” He suggested implementing a mandatory freeze on rental prices until real rent control regulations are passed.
Drazin did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.
Firmin’s facade crumbles
Shoul Konig, a property owner who also signed over a master lease to Firmin, told Ricochet the relationship was extremely profitable. “Last year, when I started with him, it was very good. We made a lot of money,” said Konig by phone. “In a five bedroom apartment, you were able to get into your pocket, net, after paying the management fee and after paying cleaning and everything, for June, July, August, September, October, $10,000 per month.”
When asked what he thought about provincial regulations aimed at controlling rent increases, he said “of course I want rents to go up … first talk to the bank to put down the [interest] rate, and then call me back.”
Konig, who said he was introduced to Firmin through a Montreal-based real estate agent, brought Firmin additional clients from his own personal network, putting his reputation on the line when things turned sour. According to multiple sources, Firmin had an acrimonious split with his business partner, Jonathan Poisson, who had been in charge of operations.
Poisson, when reached by phone and asked about his relationship with Firmin, initially confirmed that the two had once been partners, but in the same call he claimed he was just an employee following orders. “It was his business and I was working for him, and I was kind of exploited in a way, because he would ask me to do very shady stuff for him,” said Poisson. “At one point it was a little too much and I was not willing to participate.” Poisson said that the company was grossing between $50,000 and $60,000 per month on their Montreal properties, an amount Firmin later confirmed by phone.
Poisson denied running the Airbnb accounts even though each account was named “Jonathan,” up until his departure from the company. “I was never his partner. I didn’t have any ownership rights or control over the business; I was just an employee, or more like a volunteer since I’ve barely been paid for my time,” he wrote in a rambling text message which also included a quote from the Buddha and a threat of legal action against Ricochet.
Firmin and another property owner both confirmed that Poisson was a partner.
In the end, Poisson’s title might be an insignificant detail, but his participation in the business seems to have been a necessity. A Montreal property owner who worked with Leasing Kings said that when Poisson left, the business fell apart.
“This is when the good days finished,” added Konig.
Until this week Firmin was the second largest host in Montreal, offering 76 listings spread across the metropolis. Considering the data only accounts for one of many accounts connected to him, it’s possible that he was the largest host in Montreal at the time.
Despite being one of the platform’s largest local users, and running at least four accounts whose misleading details were verified by Airbnb, every listing offered by Firmin and reviewed by Ricochet displayed a fraudulent CITQ license.
When asked for comment about phony license numbers appearing on Airbnb, a spokesperson for the company pointed out that the law requiring companies to remove unlawful listings hasn’t yet come into effect. “Airbnb instituted a mandatory licence field and has offered the province the ability to remove ineligible listings through the City Portal,” she said, clearly expecting the public to cover the costs of keeping the private rental platform compliant with the law. “The province needs to build an API or other technological solution to support compliance.”
In a phone interview, Firmin claimed the fake numbers were given to him by Poisson and that he had no reason to doubt their authenticity.
Disappearing negative reviews
Unsanitary conditions, double bookings, an inability to access the rental and an inability to contact the host were common reviews. Despite this, Firmin’s ratings remain above 4 stars on Airbnb. During one day of the investigation, Ricochet witnessed Firmin’s review count drop by almost 20 as his rating went up.
Firmin’s explanation is typically convoluted. He claims he had multiple listings for individual rooms to rent on Airbnb (among other listings). After shutting down these rooming houses and removing the listings, he says Airbnb failed to cancel existing bookings, which led to angry guests showing up with no place to stay and leaving him “false” reviews. He says he contested those reviews and they were all removed by Airbnb right away.
“I spoke with Airbnb. I sent them all of the proof and they removed the comments. [They weren’t] true,” said Firmin. “So if you check my account, if you check the reviews, you're going to see that I've got a normal account with a majority of good reviews.”
Late last month, Pratul Gamre and his friend booked a four bedroom apartment with “Mike” through Airbnb and were excited to visit Montreal for the first time. Unfortunately for Gamre, their vacation wasn’t a relaxing one.
“Upon reaching the intended place, the host texted us a different address,” Gamre wrote to Airbnb customer support on July 1 following his stay. “At 9am, we woke up to the owner of the house working inside our rented place and amazed at the fact that he had already mentioned to Mike not to rent this place. He further added that we had to get out of the place for 4 hours for an open house showing. We had to pack our bags and stay outside. Mike did NOT pick up our calls.”
Over the course of Gamre’s stay, he and his friend were forced to leave their rental several times and never had the security of knowing whether or not they had a place to stay later that night. They also woke up to another group attempting to access their home claiming “Mike” had booked it with them and given them the access code. Gamre spent days chatting with various Airbnb customer support agents, all of whom attempted to close the case before it was resolved.
“I understand that you would like to receive a partial refund; however, I am bound by our policy that any other refund outside the said policy will be at your host’s discretion,” read one response Gamre received from the hosting platform.
In the end, Airbnb gave Gamre a $59 refund on his $500 booking. He doesn’t plan on using Airbnb again, although he’s willing to give Montreal another shot.
Firmin’s main account was inaccessible as of Monday following an inquiry by Ricochet with Airbnb. Before going offline, his profile had 500 reviews and maintained a rating of 4.16 stars. A reverse Google image search revealed his profile photo was of Tennis strategy coach Mike James, likely used without authorization.
“We do not systematically scrub negative reviews from listings,” said a spokesperson for Airbnb.
Firmin’s explanation does not account for why there are also similar bad reviews of his listings on other platforms, such as booking.com.
“We risk becoming the next Toronto or Vancouver”
Both Konig and a second property owner who worked with Firmin said that their relationship with him is now over. “I changed the lock last month and said ‘fuck you, get out of my life’,” said one property owner whose name Ricochet agreed to withold in exchange for information on Firmin’s operation.
“I see all those really bad reviews on his account, and he’s able to erase them. I have screenshots. This guy needs to be stopped. He’s a menace to society. I fucking hate this guy.”
The landlords insinuated that they will be seeking the services of other booking agents for their properties in the future, maintaining the artificially inflated rental prices they gained from Firmin.
“I think we’ve seen how much Airbnb has affected the rental market,” said Mansoor. Even with legislation in the pipeline, such as Bill 25 which will require platforms such as Airbnb to remove unlicensed listings, he thinks much more needs to be done to protect vulnerable tenants and protect affordable rents. “The first thing we need to do is tighten the rules on evictions to prevent people from being evicted who’ve been their long-term tenants.
“Unfortunately, our city and our province, which were once defined by affordability, are now falling through the trap,” said Mansoor. “Unless something is done … we risk becoming the next Toronto or Vancouver.”