Most Airbnbs in Montreal are illegal and few safety standards are enforced
'Fundamentally, it’s a Wild West,' says expert about lack of enforcement on short-term rentals
If you've rented an Airbnb unit in Montreal, chances are it was an illegal one.
More than 90 per cent of short-term rental units in the city listed on Airbnb are not authorized, according to an independent watchdog group, Inside Airbnb.
Last week's deadly fire in Old Montreal has put a spotlight on the possible dangers that come with booking a stay at a short-term rental unit — and the pressure on municipal and provincial officials to do something about it.
So far, four deaths have been confirmed after the fire ravaged a 15-unit, multi-use building that included rentals listed on Airbnb. Five people are still missing, as search efforts continue.
Full-time, short-term rentals are not allowed in that part of the city, with the exception of those that were already active prior to 2018.
In Quebec, there are rules for short-term rentals. But there are also concerns about a severe lack of oversight and enforcement for thousands of properties that could ultimately be unsafe.
Here's a breakdown of those rules and what you should keep in mind during your next booking.
What are the rules and who is in charge?
Oversight of short-term rentals is carried out by both the province and municipalities.
In 2021, the Quebec government passed the Act respecting tourist accommodation establishments.
Operators of short-term rentals need to register with the province, and with that comes a registration number. That's mainly to make sure operators pay taxes.
Provincial registration numbers can be included in listings.
Cities like Montreal, and its boroughs, have rules outlining where short-term rentals are allowed.
Who enforces the law and makes sure units are safe?
In the days since the fire, municipal and provincial authorities have been essentially pointing the finger at each other.
Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante said Revenu Québec needs to have more inspectors investigating illegal Airbnb operators.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Revenu Québec told CBC News that the agency "doesn't have the mandate to apply municipal regulations."
As far as McGill University professor David Wachsmuth is concerned, the provincial law and municipal rules are pretty clear.
"The question of what you're going to get away with is a very different story," said Wachsmuth, who studies Canada's short-term rental market.
"Unfortunately, that story is: you're probably going to get away with anything."
On Monday, Quebec Tourism Minister Caroline Proulx said she plans to table a bill that would force Airbnb to only allow units that are registered with the province to be listed on the app.
Plante said the city should do more to clamp down on illegal tourist accommodations, adding that it needs help from the province and Airbnb as well.
What to watch for when booking
Here's one thing to keep in mind when booking on Airbnb: Property owners don't need to show proof that they have functioning smoke and carbon monoxide detectors in order for their listings to be approved.
There have been reports of smoke detectors either missing or not functioning properly in the Old Montreal building.
On its website, Airbnb writes that "we strongly urge hosts to install smoke and carbon monoxide alarms in spaces that use fuel-burning appliances, test them regularly and make sure their listing description is up to date."
Airbnb also offers those detectors for free. Ultimately, however, the only person who will likely inspect the unit is you — when you get there.
Unlike hotels, things like fire exits and sprinkler systems are not mandatory.
In an interview with CBC News, one man said his granddaughter was among those missing. He said police told him she told 911 operators she was stuck in a room without windows.
"Fundamentally, it's a Wild West. It's a situation where you, as a guest, have to cross your fingers," said Wachsmuth.
"There's a tension with trying to operate apartment buildings as hotels. It's a very convenient thing but one of the risks is that, inevitably, we're not going to be able to get the same safety standards that we have for buildings which are designed to accommodate many members of the travelling public."
What to do if you spot a problem
Wachsmuth says combing through reviews can help potential guests sniff out rental properties that may not have the safety features advertised.
"But again, these are all sort of imperfect channels to pass on this information," Wachsmuth said.
In light of that, when you check into a short-term rental, you should be checking to see if the alarm systems are functioning properly and if there's a fire escape or a way out in case you are in trouble.
If anything seems worrisome or off, you should contact the short-term rental company and be mindful that your safety during your stay could be compromised.
The city says its inspectors are quick to intervene when there are complaints regarding short-term rental units for tourists, most notably when it comes to noise and cleanliness.
It also says it encourages citizens to contact 311 to report illegal activities related to tourist accommodations. That information allows them to flag issues with Revenu Québec.
With files from Jennifer Yoon, Steve Rukavina, Sabrina Jonas and Radio-Canada