DEATH BY LANDLORD in not a criminal offence in Canada—but Randy Sears thinks it should be. He hopes to make that case in a $22-million lawsuit against Emile Benamor, the owner of an Old Montreal building that burned down March 16.
Seven renters died in the fire. Sears’ son, Nathan, was one of them.
Benamor has never shown any interest in being a good landlord. Records show a history of failing to fix violations of fire safety regulations starting in 2009, shortly after he bought the historic greystone.
Problems persisted at the building. The fire safety violations piled up year after year. Benamor paid little or no attention. It’s unclear, based on the inspection reports, if all, or any, of the problems listed were ever addressed.
Tag team landlords
Benamor’s main aim is clear: to squeeze the most profit he can out of his properties. One way he does this is to harass and bully long-term tenants into leaving—which allows him to raise rents; and then rent to tenants willing to pay more because they intend to use their apartments as Airbnb hosts—which reduces, or even eliminates, his landlord responsibilities.
Once long-term tenants are out, and Airbnb hosts are in, Benamor is able to legally skirt provincial rent control regulations.
Rent increases of $100 to $200 each year were standard 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. One Airbnd host reported she netted around $50,000 per year.
Ricochet online news 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.
Rent control on paper
“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. “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.
Tenants almost never do it, says Dussault. They fear retaliation from the landlord or just an unpleasant relationship,
In Benamor’s case, the Airbnb hosts running profitable businesses in his buildings were less likely to contest his rent increases on apartments they didn’t live in than the long-term tenants defending their homes.
The Airbnb two-step continues
It took 11 days for Montreal police to recover the bodies of those who perished in the fire. However, those working for Benamor, or operating short-term rentals in his building, had already begun advertising units for rent online.
In the weeks following the fire, a realtor with Royal LePage posted 10 of Benamor’s apartments for rent, some of which had recently been exclusively Airbnb rentals.
Tariq Hasan, the man identified as 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.
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