Montreal ban Airbnb

It’s time to ban Airbnb in Montreal

An open letter to the city, Mayor Plante and Projet Montréal.

Mayor Plante, the time has come to ban Airbnb in Montreal. 

It’s time to take bold, progressive action and perhaps even set a precedent as one of the first major cities in the world to completely ban Airbnb and other companies like it. Montreal would be in good company, joining a growing list of world cities, both large and small, that are either taking steps to better regulate homestays or placing such severe restrictions on them that the practice is untenable and unprofitable. I strongly suggest the latter. The Quebec government has had numerous tools at its disposal to regulate Airbnb (I’m using the company name as shorthand for the entirety of the homestay industry), and they have failed to act. It is yet another demonstration of François Legault’s total disinterest in Montreal’s reality. 

Make no mistake, you will be setting a precedent, and doing so is never easy. But it is always more difficult to take action than to do nothing. You may face some resistance from people who profit from short-term rental properties. The city may face a court challenge, and there will doubtless be costs associated with enforcement. Simply by virtue of the fact that you take action, François Legault may oppose it in a misguided attempt to score political points or flex his muscle over Montreal’s affairs.

So be it. This is worth the fight. 

Legal precedents need to be set, and if you act now, you’ll likely have the support of the population at large. Strike while the iron is hot. The number of people who are actually making money off Airbnb and services like it is comparatively small. The number of people negatively affected by the cumulative effects of Airbnb is far more than the four to seven people who lost their lives in what increasingly appears to be a greed-driven death trap.  

While Airbnb may have once been a revolutionary idea that made travel more affordable and gave people a unique way to capitalize on their property, it is now Godzilla destroying our city.

I am disinclined to call the fire a tragedy since it was entirely avoidable. This was an illegal and unlicensed pseudo-hotel operating in a part of the city where Airbnbs were already supposedly banned. There were building code violations, such as closed rooms without windows.  

As of the time of this article’s publication, not all the bodies have yet been found, but it is likely seven people have died, and another nine people have been injured (at least two critically). Others are homeless, and yet another irreplaceable historic property has been lost. Given the density of buildings in Old Montreal and the severity of the fire, it is a miracle the fire didn’t spread to other buildings. 

It may be tempting to call this an outlier, but it is in fact just a particularly violent and lethal example of the destruction Airbnb has been bringing to our city, and too many others, all around the world. 

We know now that the building’s owner is a slumlord who has been ignoring building codes and laws intended to protect renters. It appears that he turned his Place d’Youville property into a veritable death trap in his blind pursuit of profit. As reported by Zachary Kamel in Ricochet, Emile-Haim Benamor aggressively pushed out tenants to convert apartments into Airbnbs, which in turn were kept in conditions so utterly vile it defies logic as to how he ever succeeded at it. Perhaps it’s an indication of just how bad the housing and accommodation crisis truly has become. We know that Benamor had about 20 Airbnb listings, and was running his illegal rental property empire with the alleged assistance of one Tariq Hasan, in a manner that was specifically designed so that each could claim ignorance of the other to protect themselves in cases such as this.

He is not alone, of this we can be absolutely certain. There are, without any doubt, likely dozens of people just like him who have people living in substandard housing throughout our city.

Had this event occurred in a CAQ riding, I don’t doubt the Legault administration would have already called a national inquiry, but because it took place in Montreal we instead get lame excuses, such as Revenu Québec saying they don’t have the mandate to enforce municipal regulations, or Caroline Proulx saying she’ll tighten regulations. But the lame excuses aren’t just coming from Quebec City. In a recent press conference, Benoit Dorais said “it’s really difficult” to shut down illegal Airbnbs because exact addresses aren’t listed until bookings are confirmed. That’s a pretty lame excuse. Inspectors could simply make a booking anonymously and demand proof of the listing’s legality upon arrival. Given that almost no one has a licence, it would pretty easy to start shutting them down. Those affected could easily be convinced to refund the booking and take down the listing to avoid the fine. It wouldn’t take very long for word to spread and for people to start voluntarily shutting down their Airbnb operations city-wide.

That matter aside, if the Quebec government isn’t interested in taking action, then it is ultimately your responsibility to do something. In this case, it’s far better to ask for forgiveness than permission. 

Airbnb isn’t working in our favour in myriad ways, not least of which being that the exploitative aspects of the company are being used by some of our worst citizens, and this in turn is damaging our reputation on a global scale. Google “Montreal Airbnb” and stories about the fire are at the top of the search results. Those who argue banning Airbnb would damage our tourism industry should consider the damage caused by tourists dying in an illegal Airbnb fire. 

This isn’t the only reason to ban Airbnb outright in Montreal. As I mentioned earlier, Airbnb has had a profoundly negative impact on the quality of life in Montreal, and is a major contributing factor to the housing crisis. I know the housing crisis is a major issue that you, Mayor Plante, take seriously. In recent days you have expressed your sincere frustration with the Legault administration’s utter disinterest in addressing the housing crisis, and the crippling underfunding of social housing construction. You have called for a crackdown on illegal Airbnbs; please consider cracking down on all of them. Eliminating Airbnbs would be a good place to start to tackle the housing crisis.

Airbnb makes cities less affordable and is a major contributing factor to housing crises here and elsewhere. Throughout our city, people are being “renovicted” out of their once affordable homes to make way for rental properties. New residential construction, of which there has been a considerable amount in recent years, has neither helped alleviate the housing crisis nor kept rents affordable. Why? At least in part because new housing units are being used as rental properties, maintaining an artificial scarcity that keeps prices up. But it’s much worse than that, given that a single Airbnb in a condo or apartment tower can lower the quality of life throughout the building and that a similar effect can occur in neighbourhoods, some of which have as many as one Airbnb listings for every 15 dwellings. Across the city, once vibrant neighbourhoods have become eerily quiet, depopulated of long-term residents. Throughout the city, once prosperous small and medium sized businesses that anchored the commercial thoroughfares of the city’s neighbourhoods have closed due to rent hikes and renoviction schemes all brought on by insatiable greed facilitated by Airbnb.

This is not the Montreal I once knew.

Twenty-some-odd years ago, when Montreal was beginning its latterday ascension as North America’s capital of cool, this city was known first and foremost for its unequalled cost of living to quality of life ratio. Inexpensive apartments were plentiful, and were often owned by people who had strong ties to their immediate environs (because they lived in the same neighbourhood and/or ran a neighbourhood business). Living in Montreal was easy and enjoyable, and this attracted a lot of artists, musicians and other creative types who helped propel this city out of the doldrums of the 1990s.

That city doesn’t really exist anymore. We still try to capitalize on it as though it were, but in truth this city is far too expensive to be the great creative hub it once was.

Airbnb isn’t exclusively responsible for this, but they sure have’t helped. Banning them won’t bring that version of Montreal back, but it will doubtless help restore some of Montreal’s affordability. A 2019 study by the Economic Policy Institute revealed that Airbnb was responsible for an average rent increase of $400 (USD) in New York City. The effect on Montreal, which is smaller, has a lower hotel capacity and generally has lower housing costs, may have actually been more severe. In addition, increased housing costs are coupled with the equally devastating reduction in overall housing supply, as properties shift from serving the local population to accommodating travellers. Thus, rents aren’t only increasing because of more units are being used for Airbnb, but because of the artificial scarcity Airbnb creates. Our historic affordability is being undercut in two inter-related ways.

This isn’t theoretical either. Let’s take a look at the numbers.

According to Inside Airbnb, there are nearly 14,000 Airbnbs listed on the island of Montreal, the overwhelming majority of which are within the city limits. Of those within the city limits, the overwhelming majority are, predictably, found in Ville-Marie, the Centre-Sud, the Plateau, Old Montreal and Mile End, areas that have some of the highest population density, the highest concentrations of unhoused people and the highest number of people requiring social assistance. 

Of this, 77% (nearly 11,000 listings) are full home rentals, many of which are rented multiple times per year, suggesting the listing is more of a hotel than a home. By looking at just the frequently and recently booked, we find nearly 4,000 units booked on average about 200 nights per year at an average rate of $156. For comparison’s sake, the average price per night of a three-star hotel in Montreal is $142. 

Based on that data alone (and keep in mind that this is only Airbnb listings, not other short-term rental properties), there are in all likelihood at least 4,000 housing units located in the city centre that would, under normal circumstances, be used as dwellings.

Moreover, it’s a market of at least 4,000 potential hotel rooms. Banning Airbnb wouldn’t just put thousands of housing units back on the open market in the parts of the city that need it the most, it could also result in a hotel construction boom. Banning Airbnb could provide a partial solution to the urban housing crisis as much as the impetus for a considerable amount of new construction as well, a potentially significant economic boost for our city.

While there are laws and requirements for licences, available data indicates that no one is following them. According to Inside Airbnb, nearly 93% of the Airbnbs operating in Montreal are not licensed. Moreover, data also indicates that just over 50% of the listings are held by individuals or businesses that have more than one listing. 

The information available on Inside Airbnb is consistent with that reported by CBC/Radio-Canada back in 2019, though there appear to be more than 4,000 additional Airbnb listings today. Then as now, the majority of listings are unlicensed, located outside designated zones, used principally as full time rental properties and appear to be multi-listing rental property businesses disguised as individuals. Laws designed to limit Airbnb in Montreal have been wholly ineffective. In the 2019 CBC/Radio-Canada report, three Airbnb ‘users’ (two were in fact companies) held 430 listings in Montreal that were being used as full-time rental properties, nearly all of which were either in Ville-Marie or the Plateau. In a city already struggling with slumlords, renovictions and the apparent abandonment of the once lauded “renters rights” ethos that had kept this city affordable for many generations, Airbnb isn’t just one more problem contributing to our city’s decline, it’s amplifying and exacerbating all the pre-existing problems. Airbnb is gentrification on top of gentrification: pushing out local residents and the communities they support. It is like a cancer, eating away at the city from within, destroying the city that tourists came to see in the first place.

When people voted for you and Projet Montréal, they did so because they were fed up with the politics and policies of your predecessors, all of whom were happy to capitalize and exploit Montreal’s culture and society, its soul and character, while doing next to nothing to support the people who actually lived in the city and made it work. For decades, being ignored by mayors more concerned with international spectacles, skyscraper construction and professional baseball provided the ideal circumstances for the growth of grassroots political organizing. Necessity is, after all, the mother of invention. Projet Montréal is a consequence of that organizing, a consequence of urban citizens working together to build viable, desirable, unparalleled communities. These do-it-yourself urban planning pioneers saved a city from bulldozers and wrecking balls, and made Montreal stand out from its peers throughout North America. It isn’t just language and history that makes us unique: Montreal experienced economic decline and political strife that ruined comparable American cities. Where Detroit, Cleveland, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and too many others are shells of their former selves, Montreal was saved by Montrealers who worked tirelessly to improve the urban condition. 

This is your heritage.

Decades of hard work by the very people who helped lay the foundation for Projet Montréal’s ascension to power is being eroded by Airbnb and the demonstrably negative effect it has had on our city’s urban environment. What took generations to build is being destroyed in a matter of years. And for all the damage caused by the slum clearance initiatives and highway construction programs of the mid-late 20th century, Airbnb, if allowed to continue on its path, may cause an even greater devastation to Montreal.

If Montrealers can’t afford to live here, we’ve lost our city, and we won’t ever get it back.

This is a noble cause and I encourage you to fight it. You have nothing to lose. Banning Airbnb would likely ensure Projet Montréal’s total dominance of local politics, and your job as mayor, for many years to come. ■

Read more editorials by Taylor C. Noakes.