Toronto condo owner discovers unit listed on Airbnb behind her back — with more than 70 reviews
Units rented out without owners' consent can violate condo, tenant legislation, experts say
When Sanda Jovasevic agreed to lease her downtown Toronto condo to a tenant in May 2016, she hoped it would be a wise, long-term investment for her retirement.
But after a series of strange incidents the following year, including the unit's front door being left wide open, Jovasevic and her husband learned something was going on behind their back: Someone was repeatedly renting out the unit on Airbnb.
"It was a complete shock to us," Jovasevic said.
A CBC Toronto investigation has found two condo owners whose units were being listed on Airbnb without their consent by a "host" who claims she works for a Toronto property management company.
Legal experts say the scenario shows why condo and tenant legislation need to keep pace with the rising popularity of home-sharing websites.
"How many people went through our condo without even knowing us?" Jovasevic said. "And what could have happened that we were not aware of?"
Jovasevic used a real estate agent in the spring of 2016 to find a tenant for her investment property at 300 Front Street West, a highrise just north of the CN Tower in the heart of Toronto's entertainment district.
She said the agreement was brokered between her real estate agent and another agent, and Jovasevic and her husband never actually met the tenant who signed the lease. But the tenant, a man named Shripal Banker, did provide a reference letter stating that he worked as an accountant for a Toronto property management company called Zahra Properties.
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For more than a year, the Jovasevics assumed all was well with their tenant, who paid $2,100 each month in rent.
But in 2017, Jovasevic started to worry. In February that year, she got a call from her building concierge saying the unit's door was wide open.
Then, in November, the concierge called to inform her of a noise complaint and said two Airbnb guests were staying in the unit. The concierge also told Jovasevic the unit had been listed in their system as an Airbnb condo the entire time.
Jovasevic started doing her own research and found her condo's listing on the website — and it had more than 70 reviews dating back to 2016.
Jovasevic told her tenant she was going to inspect the unit. But she said Banker didn't show up at the inspection on Nov. 7. Instead, a woman who said she was a representative for Zahra Properties — the same company listed as the tenant's employer — came in his place. In emails provided by Jovasevic, the same woman identified herself as a property manager with Zahra Properties and referred to Banker as her "client."
During the inspection, Jovasevic took photos of the unit's empty closets and fridge, and the dated checklists she believes were left by cleaning staff. Jovasevic said it was "obvious" the unit was being used for a home-sharing business, but the woman denied it.
Later that month, Jovasevic entered the unit again for another inspection, and instead of Banker, she found a woman from the U.S. who said she was renting the unit through Airbnb for $266.17 US for a two-night stay.
Jovasevic had seen enough. She issued a notice to Banker to end his tenancy that month, writing that her condo was "rented out for the short-term rentals without [her] consent."
The Airbnb listing for Jovasevic's condo has since been removed. But until recently, it was among more than 10 listings from a verified Airbnb host named "Sofia" whose units have roughly 700 reviews combined. CBC reached out to "Sofia" through Airbnb but has not received a response.
Prior to its recent removal, CBC attempted to book a one-night stay at Jovasevic's condo through the posting listed on Airbnb. "Sofia" confirmed the CBC journalist's booking and asked to meet at a nearby grocery store on Feb. 27.
At the meeting spot, a woman who identified herself as "Sofia" and said she was a representative for Zahra Properties said the unit wasn't available, instead taking the journalist to another condo building nearby on York Street, where she provided keys to a unit.
CBC Toronto located the Airbnb listing for the unit, which has since been taken down. After being approached by CBC, the owner listed on property records said she was not aware the unit was ever listed on the website. She said she believed a long-term tenant named Shripal Banker, who referred to himself on his lease agreement as an accountant with Zahra Properties, was living in the unit.
Afzal Nathoo operates Zahra Properties and said the company only manages rental properties owned by its "principals, family and friends."
"It does not manage properties owned by third parties, outside this select group of owners," Nathoo said. "No property therefore, is managed without the knowledge and the consent of the owner in respect of its use or any other matter."
When CBC shared the addresses and unit numbers for the two condos with Airbnb listings, Nathoo said his company does not represent tenants at either location but confirmed that his employee, Shripal Banker, "has been participating in renting condominiums in Airbnb."
Nathoo also said Banker is not affiliated with Zahra Properties, but is an employee of Nathoo's gas station.
"I have made it clear to Mr. Banker that his rental activities are not acceptable and he has terminated all rental activity," Nathoo said.
Banker declined to speak to CBC.
Law 'struggling to catch up'
Legal experts say certain types of home-sharing situations can potentially violate Ontario legislation and condo bylaws.
"It all depends on the condominium documentation," said Denise Lash, founder of Lash Condo Law. While some condos don't allow home-sharing services, others have policies supporting short-term rentals, which Jovasevic said is the case in her building.
Lawyer Caryma Sa'd said the Residential Tenancies Act also applies, and landlords would be within their rights to try to end a tenancy if they discovered Airbnb rentals were happening without their knowledge.
"The law is always struggling to catch up," she said.
Short-term rentals have long been a "legal grey area," echoed Thorben Wieditz, a spokesperson with Fairbnb, a national coalition of organizations focused on establishing fair regulations for short-term rentals.
But Wieditz hopes upcoming regulations in Toronto — similar to those in Vancouver and New York — will change that.
In December, city council voted to require short-term rental operators to obtain a licence, a change that will come into effect later this year. Homeowners or renters will also be limited to offering their primary residence.
Even now, when hosts sign up on Airbnb "they must certify that they will comply with local rules before they list their space," company spokesperson Lindsey Scully said in a statement.
"We also have a hosting responsibilities page that reminds people to check their local laws and regulations and includes additional information and resources."
Landlords can also share concerns about specific listings with Airbnb. Scully said the platform treats "each case seriously."
'Inspect your units'
On Friday, Jovasevic walked around her now-empty condo unit, which has broken stove knobs and carpet stains from what she believes was a regular parade of Airbnb tenants coming and going.
She said Banker has officially moved out, though she doesn't believe he ever actually moved in.
But her fight isn't over yet. Later this month, she will face off with the tenant she never met at a joint Landlord and Tenant Board hearing. Jovasevic is making the case that Banker was renting the unit out without her knowledge. She said he's countered with his own claims that she harassed him and disrupted his enjoyment of the unit.
Still, Jovasevic plans to rent the unit out again — she'll just do things differently next time.
She offered a cautionary message to fellow landlords: "Inspect your units, now."
Do you have information to share or concerns about a specific condo rental listing in Toronto? You can reach Lauren Pelley at firstname.lastname@example.org
With files from Michelle Cheung, Paul Borkwood