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Unanswered questions: Montreal mayor calls for meeting with Airbnb after fatal fire

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Mayor Valerie Plante said Monday she requested a meeting with an Airbnb executive after a building in Old Montreal — a short-term rental hot spot — was destroyed by a fire that has left one dead and six people missing.

Short-term rentals in the city's historic district have been banned since 2018 and the mayor asked for more inspectors from the province to catch violators, admitting during a morning news conference that "the issue of illegal short-term rentals is a problem in Montreal."

She said she wrote to Nathan Rotnam, Airbnb's regional lead for northeast U.S. and Canada, to set up a meeting.

On Sunday night, firefighters found the body of a female occupant who was missing from the fire in the heritage building built in 1890. Nine people escaped the blaze, which happened last Thursday at the building at the corner of Port Street and Place d'Youville. Two people were still recovering in the burn unit at the Centre hospitalier de l'Université de Montréal as of Monday morning.

As fire crews focus their efforts on finding the remaining missing people, several questions remain unanswered about the building where the tragedy happened.

Officials initially believed only one person was missing, but later learned that several units in the building were short-term rentals, or Airbnbs, making occupants difficult to track. Montreal police confirmed Monday that some of the missing victims were from other parts of Quebec, Ontario, and the U.S.

Over the weekend, a lawyer for the building's owner said that Airbnbs in the building were being operated by tenants, adding that steps had been taken to stop the practice.

Investigators and firefighters are shown at the scene following a fire in Old Montreal, Saturday, March 18, 2023, that gutted the heritage building. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

The city has confirmed Airbnbs are illegal in the area where the building is located. However, a search on Monday on the Airbnb platform showed dozens of properties for rent in Old Montreal.

Investigating those properties is a complex process, the mayor said Monday.

"Even though we have the listing, we don't have the address. It needs to start with a complaint usually and we would have to have an inspector that shows up by surprise pretty much and catch tourists in a place in an apartment," she said.

She said the city could do more to regulate the prevalence of unauthorized Airbnb rentals and called on the company to do the same.

"So I'm willing to add more efforts and more inspectors, but it's not true that I will [only] do that and let the company do whatever they want and say, 'Not our fault. It's not our obligation.' It should be an obligation and it would make our life easier. And we would know who's illegal and who's legal," Plante said.

She said she requested an emergency meeting with Quebec's ministers responsible for housing and tourism to assess what actions need to be taken.

Airbnb declined to say on Monday why it allows hosts to offer listings in Old Montreal when the zone is not authorized for short-term rentals.

"Our hearts go out to the victims of this tragedy, and to their families and loved ones. We are providing our support to those affected, and we are assisting law enforcement as they investigate. We are also engaged with the mayor's office," read an emailed statement from the company. 

QUEBEC TO TABLE NEW LEGISLATION

According to figures from Revenue Quebec, between Apil 1, 2022 to Feb. 28, 2023, Quebec carried out 658 inspections of short-term rentals in all of Montreal. The visits resulted in 454 fines worth more than $1.8 million.

Across Quebec, there were 2,342 inspections, 1,261 of which were deemed non-compliant. Nearly $5 million in fines were handed out.

Firefighters continue the search for victims Monday, March 20, 2023 at the scene of last week’s fire that left one person dead and six people missing in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Quebec's Ministry of Revenue has the authority to inspect an Airbnb-type units, but one lawyer who spoke to CTV News said the province doesn't have enough inspectors to check all permit violators. Antoine Morneau-Sénéchal also said inspections rarely take place without a complaint.

He said it comes down to the will to enforce the law and, of course, money.

"You have to investigate, find the real owner, be sure that it's the right apartment that is rented short-term with all the permits, and so you have to issue fines," Morneau-Sénéchal said. "There is some manpower that is required to do that and there needs to be funds for that."

Following a visit to the scene of the fire Monday afternoon, Quebec Tourism Minister Caroline Proulx told reporters that an update to the tourist accommodation act will be tabled "to tighten this law" as soon as possible and legislate the short-term rental industry "even more."

The minister said in the coming weeks, she will introduce a new bill that would, among other things, require new Airbnb ads to list the Corporation de l'industrie touristique du Québec (CITQ) number authorizing the rental, as well as the permit information from the city or borough.

Proulx also wants to be able to issue fines directly to platforms, like Airbnb, who violate the rules.

"We want to have measures that will make sure that the apartments that will be available on platforms such as Airbnb will correspond to norms," Proulx said, adding that the new legislation she is proposing was already in the works.

Proulx her office is considering making additional inspectors available to stop illegal short-term rentals from flouting the law, but said it is up to municipalities to investigate properties listed in unauthorized zones, such as Old Montreal.

"We have plenty of inspectors when you are talking about legal businesses being allowed within the territory of Montreal. Should we need to add more? We are evaluating that right now," she said.

"We are not saying no to that."

With files from CTV News Montreal's Lilly Roy and Rob Lurie 

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