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Airbnb criticized after 1 killed, 6 missing in charred rubble of Montreal building

Investigators survey the scene following a fire in Old Montreal, Sunday, March 19, 2023, that gutted a heritage building. Police say the search continues for the six people missing after a fire swept through a historic Old Montreal building last week. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

MONTREAL — Quebec politicians criticized short-term rental company Airbnb on Monday for failing to be a proper corporate citizen, after a building used for illegal rentals was ravaged by a fire that killed one and left at least six missing under the rubble.

Firefighters have said that several apartments in the building located in Old Montreal were being used as Airbnb rentals, and police have said that they didn't know how many of the missing were tourists.

San Francisco-based Airbnb is "washing its hands" of the problem of illegal rentals in cities across the province, Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante told reporters outside the historic three-storey building. She said the company, which operates an online marketplace for short-term rentals, should ensure people listing their properties on the website have proper permits.

“Short-term rental platforms cannot just say that they are the 'housing marketplace' and then wash their hands of it afterwards,” Plante said. “If they want to be responsible corporate citizens, they have to help us enforce Quebec law and borough regulations.

"It's not normal to have a business that doesn't worry about the legitimacy of the people who do business with it, and who puts the responsibility on municipal and provincial instances — so taxpayers pay. When you think about it, it's totally absurd."

Later on Monday, Quebec Tourism Minister Caroline Proulx visited the burnt-out structure and told reporters that the building was hosting illegal rentals. 

"Here, they are illegal," she said, pointing at the charred building behind her. "They are outside of the zone delineated by the borough (for rentals)." She said the province is bringing in new legislation to further regulate short-term rentals. 

In 2018, Airbnb-style short-term rentals were made illegal in the area where the building is located. The city confirmed that only 10 establishments in Old Montreal have permits. However, a quick search of Airbnb's website on Monday afternoon showed hundreds of listings in the area. 

Plante said she communicated with Airbnb's lead in Canada and asked them to forbid rentals for people without a valid permit from Quebec's Revenue Department, which oversees the short-term rental industry. She said she also asked the province for more inspectors.

However, she said the problem is hard for governments to tackle, in part because Airbnb listings don't include addresses.

On Monday, Airbnb's regional policy lead for Canada said the company was providing support to those affected and assisting law enforcement. "We are also engaged with the mayor's office," Nathan Rotman wrote in a statement. 

Firefighters on Monday began dismantling the second and third floor of the historic building — called Édifice William-Watson-Ogilvie — which was constructed in 1890. At least seven people were reported missing and the body of one woman was pulled from the rubble on Sunday. 

On Monday, a crane and bucket were used to raise workers to inspect the upper storeys of the building, where parts of the roof have collapsed. A few citizens, including friends of the victims, stopped by to lay flowers outside the barricaded site. 

Police Chief Fady Dagher told reporters there could be more victims. At minimum, he said, the investigation could take two weeks.

Montreal police Insp. David Shane said earlier on Monday the police force's fire unit used a drone to find the body. Shane said the six people missing are from Quebec, Ontario and the United States, adding that investigators have contacted their families.

The fire also injured nine people, including two who remained hospitalized as of Monday.

Alexandre Bergevin, a lawyer for the building's owner — Emile-Haim Benamor — said on Sunday that Airbnb rentals in the building were not being operated by his client but by tenants, adding that steps had been taken to stop the practice. Bergevin said in a text message on Sunday that the alarm system had been replaced in 2019 and was regularly tested.

Shane said no one has been charged in connection with the fire and that the cause remains under investigation.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 20, 2023.

Sidhartha Banerjee and Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press