There are no innocent bystanders … what are they doing there in the first place?
―William S. Burroughs, Exterminator!
I wanna see some history
‘Cause now I got a reasonable economy.
—Sex Pistols, “Holidays in the Sun”
In the wake of the devastating fire that tragically cut short seven lives, destroyed an historic Old Montreal edifice, and shattered the entire community, everyone was quick to point fingers, all away from themselves.
The media blamed the owner for allowing the building to violate a multitude of codes, including hosting short-term rentals, which became illegal in 2018 in the Ville-Marie borough. The mayor blamed Airbnb, who was listing the accommodations despite their prohibition. In efforts to appease the city, which has already displayed hostility towards Uber and Lime, Airbnb vowed to crack down on unlicensed listings, something they should have been doing in the first place.
Still, no one has blamed the obvious offenders: the tourists themselves. Because if there were no demand for illegal accommodations, and nobody willing to stay in them — haven’t you seen that video? — landlords wouldn’t find evermore reprehensible ways to list their slummy properties illegally, and Airbnb wouldn’t have to crack down on them. And maybe seven people would still be alive.
Nobody ever said that those travellers should have taken responsibility for themselves; should have checked to see if their Airbnb listings had certification numbers; should have checked to see if their accommodations had important things like windows or escape routes; should have questioned why their stays in Old Montreal were so cheap. In order to save money, each of these people deliberately did not take a hotel, and they unfortunately paid the ultimate price.
This is the most cold-hearted niche take yet. But the upshot is that everyone is to blame for this cascading disaster: the landlord for listing illegal short-term rentals in an unsafe building; Airbnb for not double-checking their listings; the city for not enforcing our bylaws; travellers for their reckless disregard; and the community as a whole for allowing this building to exist in such a dangerous state. This fire reveals a deficiency in Montreal’s tourism industry: with nine million visitors expected to make Montreal their destination this summer, we need better, safer, more affordable places to stay.
CultMTL called for the all-out ban on Airbnb’s, but that is unrealistic and the city has already signalled that they are satisfied with Airbnb’s response. The extra tourism that Airbnb attracts is too lucrative to turn away. This likely means Airbnb’s and their particular sort of budget travellers are here to stay, at least for now. Yet there are seven things that Montreal could do to create the kind of accommodations that keep travellers comfortable and safe — and in turn, could render Airbnb obsolete.
The first is to diligently hold Airbnb to its commitments. If the company vows to crack down on unlicensed listings, follow up and make sure that they do. When asked point-blank why the city isn’t shutting down illegal Airbnb’s, the Executive Committee Vice Chairperson for the Commission de l’habitation et de la cohésion sociale of the Communauté métropolitaine and Sud-Ouest borough mayor, Benoit Dorais, offered three words: “It’s really difficult.” No. It’s really easy. All the city — or anyone — has to do is search on Airbnb. Every listing that is not located near Saint-Catherine Street between St. Mathieu and Amhurst is illegal.
Number two: encourage an Airbnb alternative. Montreal is home to some of the world’s most talented tech workers. With so many job cuts in that industry over the past year, there must be an abundance of idle hands just waiting to code the next made-in-Montreal app capable of doing what Airbnb does, but better. Montreal created the Bixi program and not only does it make Lime scooters and Jump bikes unnecessary, it has become the global bikeshare model.
Third: make it understood in buildings known for illegal rentals that they are not allowed. I live in an Old Montreal apartment that has frequently hosted illicit Airbnb’s. Our residents, with the assistance of the condo board and management company, have fought hard to ensure that they are not welcome this summer, installing a sign in the lobby and charging fines for violators.
Number four: equip bylaw enforcement with better tools to find offenders. If Airbnb skirts the bylaws by obscuring the addresses of accommodations, pass a bylaw that makes it necessary to disclose those addresses. No hotel would ever attempt to hide its geographical location. So why should Airbnb? Uprooting illegal listings and keeping guests safe is more important than the privacy of a few Airbnb property owners.
Five: convert disused city properties into mixed-use short-term accommodations and regular rentals. The city could lease or acquire office space that has gone vacant since Covid and remodel those buildings into living spaces for the city’s travellers and residents who need it most. With the recent announcement of the remodelled Eaton Centre restaurant, it is clear that these sorts of retrofits are a popular idea.
Six: license Casa Particular-type B&B accommodations in which travellers can stay with people willing to open up their homes. That would encourage responsibility from hosts and guests alike and relieve the city of some of the supervisory burden over companies like Airbnb. This manner of tourism is popular in Cuba, for example, and offers an authentic local experience for both budget travellers as well as owners monetizing their properties. Montrealers serve as the best ambassadors to Montreal.
Seven: as seasons change and news cycles move on, let us not forget this fire’s victims. Let us remember Dr. An Wu, 31; Dania Zafar, 31; Saniya Khan, 31; Nathan Sears, 35; Charlie Lacroix, 18; Walid Belkahla, 18; and Camille Maheux, 76. Maheux was a resident of the building for over three decades and did not deserve to have her life end this way. None of these people did.
If lawsuits arise against Airbnb, they should see trial and not be settled out of court. Settlements prevent the justice system from administering justice. By design, they also keep these incidents out of the public eye. Usually accompanied by some form of non-disclosure agreement, out-of-court settlements limit what victims are allowed to do and say. More often, the defendant accepts no guilt or responsibility. So when it comes time for cities to regulate, Airbnb can honestly claim that they were never technically found guilty or responsible for terrible things, even though they plainly paid their way out of admitting guilt or accepting responsibility for terrible things. Airbnb has a long history of buying itself out of calamities. Don’t let them.
On Friday, March 24th, on a neighbourhood walk after a long week, I took a cup of tea and headed down St. Paul. I found myself standing on the corner from which the building’s skeleton was still visible. It was a bright, crisp afternoon, not quite springtime, not yet tourist season, but almost. I thought of all the excited visitors Montreal will be welcoming this summer. And I thought that their vacations will sadly take place in this tragedy’s long shadow. The site was still marked out with danger tape and an SPVM officer was busy returning to his patrol car. As he approached, I saw tears in his eyes, because not all cops are bastards, but all capitalists are.
Louis-Philippe Lacroix, father of Charlie Lacroix, one of the 18-year-olds killed in the fire, stoically said: “This happened, there’s nothing we can do, now do everything you freaking can to avoid another story like that.”
There are a few freaking things Montreal can do.◼︎
Report an illegal tourist home to the Ville de Montreal through this portal.