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.
Yukun Zeng, rushed to Montreal from Boston when he heard of the fire. His long-time friend and former girlfriend of seven years, An Wu, was staying in the heritage building when it was ravaged by flames.
“She actually came here for a conference for neuroscience,” he said, adding she wanted to stay an extra night to see the city.
The accomplished scientist, originally from China, had been living and studying in the United States for a decade.
According to Zeng, she was last heard from a few hours before the fire broke out and now her family is desperate for news.
“You know in China is the single child policy,” he said, “so An is the only daughter.”
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).”
In 2018, Airbnb-style short-term rentals were made illegal in the area where the building is located.
Plante said she communicated with Airbnb’s lead in Canada and asked them to forbid rentals for people who don’t get a certificate with Quebec’s Revenue Department, which oversees the short-term rental industry.
Representatives with Airbnb did not immediately return requests for comment on Monday. A day earlier, Ben Breit, the global head of trust and safety communications at Airbnb, said in a statement that the company is providing support to those affected and assisting the police investigation.
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, Montreal police Chief Fady Dagher told reporters there could be more victims. At minimum, he said, the investigation could take at least two weeks.
Montreal police Insp. David Shane said earlier on Monday the police force’s fire unit used a drone to find the body. “Using drones and a bucket truck, our police officers and firemen were able to have a look at the scene from high ground and they were able to locate the victim.”
Shane said the six people missing are from Quebec, Ontario and the United States, adding that investigators have contacted their families.
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“The assumption is that there are six more people inside,” Shane said. “The different steps we’ve taken (suggest) these people who are still missing are probably in the rubble, unfortunately.”
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.
— With files from Global News’ Dan Spector