Just weeks after a deadly fire tore through one of Emile Benamor’s buildings this March — where almost all the apartments had been converted into short-term rentals — an ad popped up on booking.com for two “Stunning Old Port lofts” a few blocks away.

It’s not in the listing, but this Benamor-owned building also has a long history of safety violations recorded with the city. When it came to Ricochet’s attention last month, a simple web search of the building’s address came back with multiple short-term rental sites offering the lofts for rent.

We booked one.

While posing as guests, we were asked to make sketchy off-platform e-transfers to a Gmail account. The confirmation email provided a fraudulent Corporation de l’industrie touristique du Québec license number, a provincial authorization required to operate a short-term rental.

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The city initially declined to answer questions about whether parts of the building were declared unsafe by the fire department, citing ‘legal and operational’ reasons, and whether they had signed off on a license application for units currently being operated illegally.

The answer to both is yes.

Update Oct. 13: The city has now confirmed that five units in the rear of this building have been declared unfit for occupation by the fire department due to the absence of adequate fire escapes.

The city’s reluctance to speak publicly may be tied to mounting legal issues.

Annette Lefebvre, a lawyer representing victims of the fire in Old Montreal and relatives of the deceased in a class-action lawsuit filed against Benamor, Airbnb entrepreneur Tariq Hasan and Airbnb Inc., said they plan on adding the city of Montreal to the lawsuit by next week. “At the time of this fire, the city has turned a blind eye to these rentals, which are illegal,” said Lefebvre. “The city had obligations to abide by their own fire inspection [and short-term rental] regulations.”

The license is in the mail

In early April, just two weeks after the bodies of Charlie Lacroix and Walid Belkahla were discovered among the debris of the charred building on Port street, the last of seven bodies to be recovered, “Max” created an account on Booking.com advertising two loft spaces to rent on Notre-Dame Street West. Neither listing displayed a license number issued by the CITQ, which regulates short-term rentals in the province.

An anonymous source tipped off Ricochet to the continuing presence of short-term rentals in the building and claimed people were coming and going with luggage on a regular basis. A web search of the building’s address revealed a link to an active listing on Booking.com where the apartment is available to rent for approximately $250 per night after taxes and fees.

Prior to the fire in Old Montreal, many short-term guests warned of nailed shut windows in the reviews left on Airbnb. Eerily similar reviews were being left for the lofts on Notre-Dame Street West this summer. Ricochet confirmed that while most of the windows in one of the building’s lofts are screwed shut and bound with zip ties, the single window leading onto the fire escape was accessible.

“At the time of this fire, the city has turned a blind eye to these rentals, which are illegal. The city had obligations to abide by their own fire inspection [and short-term rental] regulations.”

After reserving the “Stunning Old Port loft,” confirmation was sent which included a CITQ license number registered to an entirely different building — a violation of provincial law.

Four phone numbers, including one with a Pakistani country code, were listed as contacts in the confirmation details. Only one was traceable, leading back to a Montréal-based realtor named Philip Misner.

Payment instructions directed that an e-transfer be sent directly to Misner’s Gmail account. Booking.com wasn’t conducting the transaction, only facilitating.

When we reached him for comment, Misner told Ricochet that his license to operate a short-term rental was in the mail.

“You can verify that with the CITQ. I was a bit slow to apply for it and there’s always some bureaucracy,” he said. “I am declaring 100 per cent of my income into my corporation and paying myself dividends — and of course I’m collecting and remitting GST/QST and the hotel tax.”

The city eventually confirmed, after some prodding from the mayor’s office, that it authorized an application for a CITQ license at the address of one of these two short-term rentals and that application is currently being processed by the province. Checking whether an address is already tied to an illegal rental operation doesn’t appear to be part of the vetting that is done for these licences.

Update Oct. 13: The city has now confirmed, one week after our initial request for information was denied, that five units in the rear of the building have been declared unfit for habitation due to the absence of fire escapes. They have also confirmed that a licence application was approved in late September for just one unit in the front of the building, a unit that is fit for habitation, not both the units currently being rented out.

The city recently established a new team of Airbnb inspectors, and wants to show the world that they’re cracking down. But the process through which these applications are approved remains unclear.

Ricochet investigated a tip that the back half of the building was being lived in, despite being ordered closed by the fire department. Ricochet observed windows open, curtains hung, and lights on. And still no fire escape.
Zachary Kamel

Ricochet also investigated a tip that the back half of the building was being lived in, despite allegedly being ordered closed by the fire department over fire safety violations. A senior city official, who requested that their name not be used, confirmed that the fire department ordered the rear half of the building vacated due to a lack of emergency exits. They added that firefighters went to inspect the building Friday, in response to our questions.

When Ricochet visited at dusk last Friday, windows were open, curtains hung and lights were on.

The Montreal fire department and the city’s corporate communications team declined to provide any information on the status of this building, and whether it was safe.

Benamor buildings

Ricochet’s reporting earlier this year uncovered multiple large rings of property owners and Airbnb operators, including Emile Benamor, participating in a property scheme dubbed the “Montreal Shuffle.”

What that looks like is landlords getting rid of long-term tenants and replacing them with Airbnb operators who sign bundles of leases for several times market rent. In addition to the boost in monthly revenue, property owners use the fake leases to artificially inflate the valuation of their property.

Misner holds at least two leases with Benamor, and is running the short-term rentals out of the building at 704 Notre-Dame Street West. Leases signed between Benamor and Misner in 2017, and obtained by Ricochet, specifically state that “the landlord allows short term sublets and Airbnb rentals,” contradicting previous claims by Benamor’s attorney that he wasn’t aware of short-term rental operations within his buildings.

Copy of the lease between Benamor and Misner.

Ricochet has records of Misner’s unlicensed rental operation on booking.com going back six months, but the lease indicates it has likely been ongoing for more than six years. Until he receives a license from the CITQ, all stays up to and including the one Ricochet booked have been illegal.

“Persons offering to rent a building covered by the Act respecting Tourist Accommodation Establishments must ensure that they hold a registration certificate issued by the CITQ,” said a spokesperson for the Organisme d’autoréglementation du courtage immobilier du Québec (OACIQ), the professional organization responsible for regulating the real estate industry. “Brokers must, just like any other person, comply with this law.”

According to the OACIQ’s website, any home offered for short-term rental online without a license may constitute a criminal offense under Bill 25, Quebec’s recently implemented short-term rental regulation, even if the accommodation is not actually rented. Fines range from $5,000 to $50,000 for individuals running illegal rentals, while websites or platforms hosting them could be on the hook for up to $100,000.

“I actually have other short term rentals downtown, and I’m one of the very few people that spent a lot of time and money going after places where I could get the permit,” Misner said.

Watch Ricochet’s video report from our recent ride-along with Montreal’s new Airbnb inspectors below, the first of its kind in North America.

In response to follow up questions, Misner provided links to two licenced downtown ghost hotels operating on booking.com in what used to be apartment buildings, each with three to eight individual units up for rent.

On the topic of the fire, Misner pointed the finger at Tariq Hasan, the Airbnb host who was managing more than 20 short-term rentals within multiple buildings owned by Benamor. He also blamed the people Hasan rented to, in addition to the city itself.

“I knew Tariq. He was a terrible operator. He took the worst apartments, and didn’t take care of them and probably attracted bad guests. Maybe blame those tenants for starting the fire, but blame the city for not verifying that there were proper exits. Maybe that should be the topic of your article. Benamor has been working hard to make sure his buildings are more than safe,” he said.

In a follow up email Misner seems unaware that the fire has since been deemed an arson currently under investigation by the Montreal police. “I mean, it is possible to blame the Airbnb guests or even a regular tenant for starting an accidental fire. It happens that people fall asleep with a cigarette and a fire breaks out,” he said. He then proceeded to defend Benamor and blamed immigration for the housing crisis.

Requests for comment sent to Benamor and his lawyer were not responded to by publication time.

With additional reporting by Ethan Cox.

This reporting is part of the Investigating Airbnb project, a crowdfunded, multi-outlet effort to track the impact of short-term rentals on the housing crisis in Canada. You can donate now to fund more journalism like this.