Could tragedy strike here?
Some Airbnb owners take safety and comfort seriously, but recent events
in Montreal have revealed the dark side of the business
By Isaac Lamoureux
THE SEARCH FOR bodies is over … for now.
Seven victims are confirmed dead from a fire in an Old Montreal building. The blaze tore through a three-story, 15-unit building at the intersection of Place d’Youville and St-Nicolas Street, which housed some long-term and mostly short-term rentals, such as Airbnbs, which are prohibited in this area of the city by a bylaw adopted in 2018. It has been reported that many of the dwellings were without windows. One of the rooms had its windows caulked shut.
Although every municipality has its own laws governing rentals, one question hangs in the air: could it happen here?
Edmonton realtor Jennifer Murphy says the window regulations behind making a dwelling or suite legal are strict. Simply put, bedroom windows need to be a specific height and width, more than large enough for a human to fit through easily.
“We get in big trouble if they advertise a suite as legal and it fails to meet code or restrictions,” she says. However, the demand is so great that there are 20,000 illegal suites in the city.
“We have an affordable housing crisis.”
Despite mainly selling properties, Murphy has had some experience with Airbnb.
“I think they’re definitely on the downfall because of safety issues,” she says.
Her neighbours were operating an Airbnb, and she began to worry that the guests were selling drugs. They had backpacks and bicycles, and were leaving the house repeatedly between midnight and 3 a.m. and getting into cars for a few minutes at a time.
“Airbnbs become short-term ghetto housing as far as I’m concerned,” Murphy says.
The residents staying at the Airbnb next to Murphy were supposed to be there for a week. However, as a member of the condo board, Murphy took action, and the suspects were evicted after five days. Also, Airbnbs are no longer permitted in her building, and, if anyone is caught running one, it’s an automatic $500 fine.
Still, Murphy’s view of Airbnb remains tainted. She says she emailed the company to let it know what was going on. She also left voicemails and texted.
“I contacted them on every single channel and red-flagged the property 10 times. Still, six months later, nobody has returned my call.
“They don’t care about your safety. They just care about collecting their 20 per cent.”
Airbnb Superhost Oscar Hungsberg says he never has trouble getting Airbnb to answer his calls.
“I have the phone number, and I get an answer within three to five minutes.”
Hungsberg rents out the third-floor loft in his home. Before he took over the house, the loft had been on a long-term lease. He decided to furnish it and rent it on a short-term basis. Originally, he hired a property management company to run the Airbnb for him, but the company seemed to let anyone book the room and spent no time on verification, he says.
One time, he says, it was clear that the resident who showed up did not match the person listed on the rental profile. Then, he noticed him getting into a car for a minute and then returning to the loft,
“He clearly just bought drugs.”
The property management company had its own security, and, when Hungsberg called, they verified that the man had trashed another Airbnb a week earlier.
Oscar Hungsberg in front of his house with his wife, Lydia.
Shortly after, Hungsberg started managing the property himself. He runs things with very strict “house rules,” meticulously vetting each person who stays there.
One of the many problems with the now-defunct property management firm was that it had allowed instant booking. Hungsberg does not.
People who want to stay at the property need to apply, usually starting with an introductory message about why they want to stay there. This back and forth lets Hungsberg get to know his clientele and helps build rapport with the Airbnb community. Of his 27 reviews, only one falls below a five-star rating. He jokes that the really tall man who left the review of four stars probably found the ceilings too low.
The third-floor loft rents for as little as $120 a night in winter, and as much as $500 a night in the summer. During the winter months, the room is rented for approximately a week per month. In summer, it is occupied nearly every day. Hungsberg says he makes more than double or triple what he would have if he had left the loft as a long-term rental.
He says Airbnb charges him a host service fee of just three per cent.
Hungsberg explains that the type of house you present and the price you charge combine to dictate the clientele you attract.
“We had it so low in the cost of nightly that we attracted the wrong market,” Hungsberg says. After cleaning the place up and charging more, he says, he has had nothing but good experiences hosting Airbnb.
The Superhost plans to develop a one-bedroom suite above his garage that will operate as an Airbnb as well, and he plans to adhere to all the safety regulations.
He recalls staying in a Airbnb in Amsterdam that made him nervous about being able to get out in the case of fire.
“It’s a very big grey zone for Airbnb and what you consider safe or not – because you can literally rent anything.”