As firefighters continue to search for victims in the charred remains of an apartment building in Old Montreal, after a blaze last week that killed at least four and left three missing, short-term rental company Airbnb said Friday it would pull listings in Quebec that don’t have permits from the provincial government.
But questions remain about the role of illegal short-term rentals in the tragedy. Police have confirmed the historic building contained unlicensed Airbnbs. In 2018, short-term rentals were banned in the area where the building is located. Earlier in the week, the Quebec government said it plans to introduce new legislation to crack down on illegal rental listings.
Alexandre Bergevin, a lawyer for Emile-Haim Benamor, the owner of the building, said last week that Airbnb rentals in the Old Montreal property were not being operated by his client. He added that the building’s fire alarm system had been replaced in 2019 and was regularly tested, and that its layout and exits had been “deemed compliant” in the past.
Family members and friends of those believed to have been killed in the fire are now anxiously awaiting news about their loved ones. Investigators have turned to dental records and DNA testing to identify three of four bodies already recovered. The fourth, Camille Maheux, a 76-year-old photographer, is the only one to have been publicly identified by police.
Louis-Phillippe Lacroix, who believes his 18-year-old daughter Charlie was among the victims, is still waiting for answers. “Every day we learn … something a little more shocking,” he said.
Charlie and at least one friend made 911 calls on March 16, when the fire broke out, saying they were trapped in a windowless apartment and could not escape, he said.
The Globe and Mail previously spoke with Eve-Marie Morin, a woman who said she had stayed in an Airbnb in the building in December, 2020. She said her unit had no windows. Survivors of last week’s blaze have said the building’s fire alarms did not work.
“We literally woke up to the sound of fire,” Alina Kuzmina, one of the survivors, said last weekend. She and her husband escaped from their Airbnb rental, which was located in the building’s basement.
In a letter Friday to Quebec Tourism Minister Caroline Proulx, Airbnb said that it would remove listings across the province that don’t have required permits from the agency that manages the province’s tourist accommodation act. It also said that in the coming days it will require new listings to include their permit numbers. The company also promised to give the provincial government access to the Airbnb City Portal, a tool it says helps communities enforce rules and understand Airbnb’s local footprint.
“These measures build on our years-long efforts to work with local and provincial officials on short-term rental rules that help address community concerns and also preserve a vital source of supplemental income for residents,” the company wrote.
The letter was signed by Nathan Rotman, Airbnb’s representative for Canada and the northeastern United States. He was one of two employees of the company who met Thursday in Quebec City with Ms. Proulx.
Ms. Proulx said in a statement after the meeting that she had made clear to the Airbnb representatives that she was determined to tighten the rules surrounding rentals, and to make shared-accommodation platforms more accountable. She also vowed to revise the law by June 9 to ensure listings include their permit numbers.
In a statement shared Friday by her spokesperson, Ms. Proulx said she was pleased with Airbnb’s measures. “I am satisfied with Airbnb’s decision to comply with our legislation as I demanded yesterday during our meeting,” Ms. Proulx said.
“I also ask other platforms to comply; however, I remain firm on my intention to tighten the [law].”
Mr. Benamor, the building owner, has had multiple files opened with the Tribunal administratif du logement (TAL), which arbitrates disputes between landlords and tenants in Quebec. While most of the disputes were about rent increases, many also show Mr. Benamor trying to terminate leases and evict tenants from the Old Montreal building, which contained 14 residential units.
In one 2012 decision, Mr. Benamor and an insurance broker from Lloyd’s, Michel Frigon, argued that the building was at a high risk of fire because of outdated electrical wiring and work they alleged a tenant had done. The tribunal dismissed the allegation for lack of proof and reminded the landlord that it was his responsibility to make sure the building was up to code.
Mr. Benamor and Mr. Bergevin did not reply to multiple requests for comment from The Globe throughout this week.
In 2020, fire inspectors visited a different Montreal building owned by Mr. Benamor, after a tenant complained about an alleged clandestine rooming house in the building.
During the visit to the property, which is located on Notre-Dame Street, an inspector tested the fire escape. The cable suspending it in the air suddenly snapped, plunging the structure and the inspector to the ground, where he suffered a broken ankle.
Mr. Benamor was charged with failing to have an emergency exit maintained in adequate condition. He was acquitted last year because there wasn’t enough proof he had failed to show diligence in addressing the issue.
A 2023 civil lawsuit by the City of Westmount – a separate municipality within Montreal – accuses Mr. Benamor of maintaining unsanitary conditions in another apartment building, this one located on St-Antoine Street.
A former tenant, Alonso Martinez Pena, said Mr. Benamor screwed the building’s back door shut at one point, which left him feeling worried about the availability of safe exits in the event of fire. The screws had been removed when The Globe visited, leaving visible holes.
Sebastian Samuel, a spokesperson for Westmount, declined to comment “in order not to jeopardize the court case” currently under way.
In addition to his disputes with tenants and municipal authorities, Mr. Benamor was found guilty of tax evasion in 2021, for which he was fined $136,180. As a result of the conviction, the Bar of Quebec prohibited him from practising fiscal law.
Another suspected victim of last week’s fire is An Wu, a 31-year-old neuroscientist who was in Montreal for a conference. Her friends said they thought something was off when she stopped answering calls and texts on March 16, the day she was supposed to fly home to the U.S.
Qiyu Chen, Ms. Wu’s friend and colleague at the University of California San Diego, said she might have been the last one to speak with her on WeChat.
“She is really a one-of-a-kind person, she is the kind of person that makes her presence felt wherever she goes,” Ms. Chen said.
Ms. Wu’s aunt, Suzhen Wu, said in an interview from Shanghai that An’s parents “are very anxious every day, very much in pain” because they have not been able to get any information from Canadian authorities about their daughter. They planned to fly from China to Montreal on Friday, she said. They “just cannot believe what happened, and it’s very hard for them to comprehend what’s happening,” she said.
Firefighters and police are continuing to search for at least three more missing people after recovering the four bodies this week.
Other media have identified Dania Zafar, 32, and Saniya Mazhar Khan, 31, as being among those who are missing after staying in the building. They were visiting from Toronto.
Authorities were still at work on the site on Friday, carefully searching the rubble using two cranes.
With a report from The Canadian Press