Emile Benamor, the owner of the Old Montreal building that burned down last month, allegedly carried out a relentless harassment campaign against his long-term tenants with the goal of forcing them out and signing new leases with Airbnb hosts.

A former tenant and Airbnb host in Benamor’s buildings who spoke to Ricochet on a condition of anonymity said that unannounced early morning visits, disruption of electricity and bullying were commonplace.

A former resident of the Old Montreal building that burned down writes in French that Benamor would constantly harass them and make their lives hell in order to get them to leave so he could raise rents.
From source

According to her, once long-term tenants were out, and Airbnb hosts were in, it enabled him to legally skirt provincial rent control regulations on dozens of his apartments.

Rent increases of $100 to $200 each year were standard, she said, and rarely contested by those operating short-term rentals in his buildings for fear of being kicked out of the building and losing their business, which she said netted her around $50,000 per year.

For Benamor, the gains were much higher.

Harassment to maximize profit

Last month a fire tore through a heritage building in Old Montreal, killing seven. At least one room in the building, located on Port Street, reportedly had no windows and only one exit. Of the 14 apartments in the building, all but three were allegedly converted into short-term rentals by a man named Tariq Hasan, who rented the apartments from Benamor.

A $22-million class-action lawsuit has now been filed against Benamor, Hasan, and Airbnb by Randy Sears, father of Nathan Sears, who died in the fire.

“Benmor had all these tenants that lived there for years,” said the former Airbnb host, explaining that long-term tenants held leases at prices far below market rate — and they’d fight Benamor on rent increases before the Tribunal administratif du logement (TAL), Quebec’s housing tribunal.

“He wants each apartment to be making more money, so he started to threaten tenants,” she said. “He would come and bully them and knock on their doors at like 6:30 or 7am to try and make their life a miserable hell, to get them out. When they would leave, his best option was to rent it to someone for Airbnb.”

A woman lies in bed during an early morning visit by owner Emile Benamor and his team. According to metadata, the photo was taken at 8:18 a.m.
From source

Ricochet has found four separate Airbnb hosts operating more than 20 apartments out of at least four of Benamor’s buildings at the time of the fire.

Now, Ricochet is able to show the benefit for Benamor in renting his apartments to those running short-term rentals out of his buildings.

According to the 2021 tax assessment roll for the city of Montreal, Benamor and his associated company EP7 Consultants Inc. owned 89 residential units spread across 22 buildings. Annual monthly increases of $100 to $200 would net him six figures year over year and significantly raise the market value of his buildings, which are directly linked to the rents of the apartments within them.

A review of court documents, former leases, and current ads for apartments confirms the former tenant’s story. In a rent setting lawsuit before the TAL, the rent stood at $1,848 per month in 2020. That same apartment is now listed for $3,000 per month. An increase of $1,152 — or more than 62 per cent in just three years.

Benamor did not respond to a request for comment sent through his attorney, Alexandre Bergevin.

“On paper we can say we have some form of rent control in Quebec, but not real rent control. It’s legal for a landlord to propose any raise he wants.”

And while the alleged harassment was illegal, the ultimate increases may have been within the bounds of the law, despite rent controls in the province.

“On paper we can say we have some form of rent control in Quebec, but not real rent control,” said Cedric Dussault, co-spokesperson for The Coalition of Housing Committees and Tenants Associations of Quebec, known by its French acronym RCLALQ. “It’s legal for a landlord to propose any raise he wants. It’s up to the tenant to stand up for his or her right… to refuse a rent increase.

“When he or she refuses, then it’s up to the landlord to go to the TAL to have rent ‘fixed.’ In practice it doesn’t happen a lot [that tenants refuse the increase],” said Dussault, citing fear of retaliation and a desire to keep the peace.

In Benamor’s case, the Airbnb hosts running profitable businesses in his buildings were less likely to contest these increases than long-term tenants defending their place of residence.

Dussault described a system wrought with loopholes that incentivizes the eviction of long-term tenants who pay lower rents. He said that RCLALQ is calling for a provincial rent registry, a definitive annual cap on rent increases, and a complete ban on short-term rental platforms like Airbnb.

Nathan Rotman, Airbnb’s regional lead in Canada, did not respond to Ricochet’s request for comment.

“The situation isn’t tenable for tenants, whether they live in Gaspé or Montréal. The CAQ has spent more time in the past few years trying to deny the crisis than to fix it… we are yet to see concrete actions to protect tenants.”

CAQ member France-Élaine Duranceau, the minister responsible for housing in Quebec, declined an interview through her spokesperson, who said the minister had already spoken to other media and wasn’t interested in any further interviews.

In January, Minister Duranceau spoke to the Journal de Montreal and made her opinion on rent increases clear. “The rent increases are suggested guidelines, but obviously each landlord will look at their situation and judge what is relevant. Everything is increasing,” explained Duranceau in French. “There is not much to do.”

Andrés Fontecilla, Quebec Solidaire’s housing critic, strongly disagrees. “If CAQ’s housing minister thinks nothing can be done, she needs to go back to the drawing board. Not only are there solutions, but she has a responsibility towards her constituents and all tenants,” he wrote in an email.

“The situation isn’t tenable for tenants, whether they live in Gaspé or Montréal,” continued Fontecilla. “The CAQ has spent more time in the past few years trying to deny the crisis than to fix it… we are yet to see concrete actions to protect tenants.”

A flood of Benamor’s apartments suddenly available to rent

It took 11 days for Montreal police to recover the bodies of those who perished in the fire on Port Street last month, and as families of the missing anxiously waited for news of their loved ones, those working for Benamor, or operating short-term rentals in his building, had already begun advertising units for rent online.

Amanda Kozutsky, who has worked for Benamor since last Fall, posted an ad for one of his Old Montreal apartments on March 17, just one day after the fire.

A few weeks later, Kozutsky posted another ad for an apartment located in Benamor’s building on Notre-Dame Street West with some very specific language. “Under no circumstance will tenants have any intention of managing Airbnb or adjacent short-term rental operations,” she wrote.

A lease from 2017 between Benamor and an Airbnb host contained quite different language. “The landlord allows short-term sublets and Airbnb rentals.”

The ad continues, “the building is certified as having up-to-code fire safety specifications, as governed by the laws of Montreal, Quebec. This includes emergency lighting equipment, autonomous detectors and extinguishers and a fire escape.”

A fire safety inspection certificate is included among the photos of the 2,000 square foot interior. While the certificate confirms the first three points Kozutsky mentions in regards to fire safety, it makes no mention of a fire escape.

In a phone call with the owner of the company that issued the fire safety certificate, he maintains that his inspection mandate does not cover the fire escape. “Access or no access, it’s not my responsibility,” he said by phone.

Ricochet inquired with the city of Montreal whether the city’s fire department considers the building located at 704 Notre-Dame Street West to be fire safe. Kim Nantais, a city spokesperson, suggested submitting an access to information request and provided no other details.

Kozutsky did not respond to a request for comment.

Gregory McCauley is a realtor with Royal LePage Village in Pointe Claire and has worked with Benamor for years. In a 2018 Facebook post advertising an apartment in the now destroyed building on Port Street, McCauley advertises “a large loft with views onto park d’youville.” The loft being advertised is for the basement unit that Alina Kuzmina was staying in at the time of the fire with her husband, Simone Mereu.

“My husband had been woken up by an explosion in the basement,” Kuzmina said by phone. “Looking back on it all now, I am pretty positive that what my husband heard… was the furnace exploding.” Kuzmina said that the explosion happened at 5:38am. She called 911 two minutes later and then attempted to exit through the basement window.

Photo taken by Alina Kuzmina after she and her husband escaped the fire.
Alina Kuzmina

“They had been nailed shut, every single one of them, that is why we had to smash the window instead of just opening it,” she said. “When I got out, the first thing I saw was the guy who jumped from the second floor,” describing a fire that was growing larger with each passing second.

She said neither of the two smoke alarms in her apartment went off at any point during the fire.

Kuzmina’s unit was also the subject of a 2012 court case between Benamor and the tenant at the time, Piotr Torbicki. The lawsuit, first reported by The Canadian Press, addresses fire safety issues present in the building, for which Benamor and the tenant blamed each other.

“The various electrical systems appeared to the Tribunal to be non-compliant and obsolete,” writes administrative judge Jocelyne Gascon in her decision. “It is also quite obvious that an old electrical junction box near the shower cannot be without risk.”

In the weeks following the fire, McCauley posted 10 of Benamor’s apartments for rent, some of which had recently been exclusively Airbnb rentals.

McCauley also did not respond to requests for comment.

Ricochet requested an interview with the OACIQ, Quebec’s real estate authority, on whether realtors have an ethical obligation to inform potential tenants or buyers of unsafe conditions within units they are advertising. They did not respond by press time.

Finally, Tariq Hasan, the man identified last month by Ricochet as being the Airbnb host operating in 135 Port Street at the time of the fire, listed at least three former Airbnb units in 704 Notre-Dame Street West for rent on the website QDB.ca.

Hasan did not respond to Ricochet’s requests for comment made through his lawyer.