Jordan: One night. One tragedy. Three Lives.
News Clip: The barrage of bullets began to fly at 10:20 last night, creating a scene of panic that’s becoming all too routine in Toronto. People around here kind of got like huddled around cars. Cops And ambulances everywhere, so it’s really, it’s just scary.
Jordan: This past weekend, two of the biggest problems the city of Toronto faces came together. With devastating results. First, the shooting itself, the worst so far in 2020 which follows the worst year in recent history for gun violence in Toronto and the victims, all young men, the sort of young men that advocates for community investment in safety have been desperately trying to fund programs to help. Next, location.
News Clip: According to Toronto police chief Mark Saunders and homicide detectives, the deadly shooting took place inside an Airbnb rental unit that was being used as a weekend party pad.
Jordan: A downtown condo, a short term rental, a party, and the words of organizations that fight for regulations on services like Airbnb, that’s called a ghost hotel. And nobody except the people who make money from these things want them to exist in the city. City council has even taken steps to prevent them steps that were taken more than two years ago and still have yet to come into effect. So in the meantime, at the intersection of these two problems, the tragedy. Is this enough to shame the city into action? Is it enough to shame Airbnb and to new regulations? We’re about to find out. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. This is the big story. Jennifer Pagliaro of the Toronto Star, the perfect person to talk to today. She is currently a city hall reporter and previously a crime reporter. Hey, Jennifer.
Jennifer: Hey Jordan.
Jordan: Why don’t you first, for people who don’t live in Toronto or aren’t familiar with the area, describe City Place.
Jennifer: So City Place is really right in the heart of the city in Toronto terms. It’s a relatively new neighborhood. There’s a lot of high rise condos. Uh, just recently the city has tried to figure out how to make it a more fulsome community. They’re building a, have built a school community center there. Uh, they’ve put in some other amenities, but it was really, uh, built as a high rise residential community. There’s just a lot of condo units all pushed into this one very small area at the sort of foot of the city in the heart of downtown.
Jordan: And what, uh, happened there this weekend and what do we know about it?
Jennifer: So over the weekend, there was a pretty significant shooting. Three people died in that shooting. Two other men were injured. We know that all of the victims were under the age of 21 and the most recent thing we’ve heard from police is that they’re actually investigating it as a possible murder suicide. There are three young men, they haven’t explained to us which ones were the alleged victims and which was the alleged shooter. But in any event, three people dying in one incident is an extreme tragedy.
Jordan: And what about the location, where it happened? What was going on?
Jennifer: So one of the first things we learned from police was that the men were in a unit that was being rented out through Airbnb. And that is something that we have seen in the past where there have been incidents in Airbnb units. And that was a piece of information that police told us right away. And something that’s sort of, I think, been at the heart of this story.
Jordan: How often does that kind of thing happen? I know just anecdotally, at least that City Place is kind of notorious for being half real renters and half just like empty apartments that are on Airbnb.
Jennifer: One of the downsides I think, to having this really rapidly growing city as we’ve had a lot of condos go up and a lot of people have purchased units as investment properties, and one of the ways that they are garnering investment out of these is to rent them on sites like Airbnb. Airbnb is not the only site. It’s probably the most popular one, but you can make a lot of money just renting out these places on even just a weekend. And the issue is that these units that are being rented out this way are often not the owner’s primary residence. Again, they’ve purchased it as an investment instead of renting it out through kind of a traditional means where someone signs a lease for 12 months or just even a shorter amount of time. It’s allowing this sort of churn of people to come through and in buildings like City Place, it’s not the only place we’ve seen this. There are often multiple units in one building where people are renting out through Airbnb, and that creates a problem for the residents living there. If the people coming to their building don’t have a respect for the neighbourhood or the neighbours, and we’ve seen that in incidents like this, we hear about them so. Anecdotally, it sounds like a lot. It’s hard to know how problematic the units are there. There’s, there’s thousands of units listed on Airbnb, so you have to put that in perspective. But there certainly have been incidents like this.
Jordan: Has there been pushback from advocacy groups, from neighbourhood associations, renters?
Jennifer: Yeah, there is an advocacy group, uh, in the city, which is quite organized, FairBnB, and they’ve been really pushing back. Against these types of units where they’re primarily rented out through Airbnb. We know it’s a huge new sense for, for residents that live next to these units are in the same neighborhood as these units, and it’s also an issue for the city because it means that these units aren’t being offered as longterm rental solutions in a city where we have a housing crisis.
Jordan: What was the immediate reaction from FairBnB after this particular shooting?
Jennifer: Well, there’s been this ongoing issue of what they call ghost hotels, and they’re deeply concerned about these kinds of units being rented out in this way. Uh, obviously a shooting in a building is, is devastating for everyone. Uh, and they would like to see, I think, a crackdown on and have been pushing for a crack down on these types of units.
Jordan: What has the city done?
Jennifer: So the city at the end of 2017 after a lot of debate, decided to regulate Airbnb. And what that means is that Airbnb is allowed to operate. And companies like Airbnb are allowed to operate legally in the city. But there are rules and some of those rules, and I think FairBnB and others would argue the most important rule is that the unit that you’re renting out has to be your primary residence. And you can only rent it out for a certain number of days or consecutive days in the year. And the idea is that if it’s your home, the home that you live in most of the time, so let’s say you have a condo, uh, in Toronto. Is this true for a lot of, um, seniors in the city, for example. But you go to Florida for part of the year, it would allow you to rent out your condo to someone on Airbnb while you’re not here. But the hope is that if it’s your primary residence, then you would take perhaps greater care and in screening the people that are using the unit, or that it would prevent this ghost hotel phenomenon that’s been such a problem in Toronto.
Jordan: Okay. So that was the end of 2017.
Jordan: So what happened?
Jennifer: So what happened is that there were appeals made to this provincial tribunal. Uh, it’s called the local planning appeal tribunal, it’s a really long name. We call them LPAT, but essentially they hear these types of appeals when it comes to city planning and development issues. And there was a pushback that the regulations the city had and the council had approved were too strict. And this is coming from landlord groups and others who want to be able to rent out their investment properties in the way they always have been. And finally in the end of last year, the ELPAT actually sided with the city and said, no, that the city’s regulations would stand. So we’re actually in this strange, uh, limbo period right now where the rule of the land are the regulations the city put in place, but there’s still some uptake in that the city hasn’t actually started actively licensing and having those already signed up on Airbnb as part of this licensing scheme. So there will be this period up until, uh, the city says the summer where they haven’t actually started actively licensing or enforcing the units. But that’s coming.
Jordan: So this was a really ill timed. Um, not that any shooting is not ill timed, but, uh, in the gray area between, uh, enacting it and enforcing it?
Jennifer: Totally. So the hope is that once they start licensing, enforcing, part of that is going to be a requirement that the companies like Airbnb are verifying the identity of the owners and their principle residence, so that they would be able to identify that if an owner lists a unit that they didn’t show, you know, some kind of government ID for as their primary residence, then hopefully that unit would be delisted because it doesn’t adhere to the city’s policies. And that could be something that Airbnb would essentially regulate by adhering to the rules that the city put in place. Whether that works in practice, we’ll have to see once those enforcement mechanisms are in place. But that’s the hope is that you’re not allowed to rent out an investment condo unless it’s your primary residence or it’s, you know, let’s say it’s your kid’s primary residence and it’s hard to know what the loopholes are until they start happening.
Jordan: Yeah, it seems like a lot of reliance on the company itself to police this.
Jennifer: It will be interesting to see to what extent. City enforcement, we do have bylaw enforcement officers, can play a part in that, but part of the challenge with Airbnb and sites like it is that the city doesn’t have really insight into sort of the backend of the system. They can’t necessarily see that information that Airbnb has when you sign up to list your house, right? And that makes it really challenging for the city to actually enforce its own regulations. You’re sort of relying on these tech companies that you hope have people’s best interests at heart, but of course, they’re also in this to make a profit. And so like some of the other fights we’ve seen the city have with, uh, you know, these big tech giants like Uber, this is this challenge that these companies are already here. People already using them. So how do you make them safer for everyone?
Jordan: So the reason we wanted to talk to you specifically is because, uh, City Hall is your beat. This obviously created a conversation about Airbnb at City Hall. Um, but this also budget time. And there’s another problem in the city, which is gun violence among young Torontonians. And tell me, uh. What the reaction was to this. I mean, this was a, this was a pretty devastating shooting.
Jennifer: Yeah. You know, when I saw the news over the weekend, the first thing I thought was not, you know, was this an Airbnb unit or even where in the city was this? The first thing that I look to see was how old were they? Because something that I’ve been covering is this devastating amount of violence that has really taken a toll on the city’s youth. Last year was the highest number of injuries and shootings ever recorded in police data going back 15 years. And there is a sense that the victims are getting younger. Uh, it’s, it’s not easy to track that, but anecdotally, we know that this has a huge impact on the youngest people in our city. And I’m talking teenagers too, uh, the people in the shooting were under 21, which to me is pretty young. Uh, and obviously it has a ripple effect on their families. And their communities. And so I think that it’s important to have this Airbnb conversation, but at the same time, it is part of this issue of escalating violence.
Jordan: Well, in the shooting came after a year, as you mentioned, which was the worst in a long, long time. And right as city council was presenting the budget for the coming year. So what was the temperature there? What, uh, what was the discussion? What, if anything, is in the plans?
Jennifer: So at right after the shooting, the mayor put out a statement, and mayor John Tory put out a statement on Twitter saying that he would have more to say in the coming days. And on Monday he announced that he would be pledging $6 million into youth violence prevention strategies. So that’s dedicated youth hubs in community centers and libraries where kids essentially go to do homework and get mentorship. And, and it’s basically just a safe place to hang out, and also into community grants that would be for organizations that are already working in communities that need it, uh, to help youth stay out of this cycle of violence. And that is now part of the budget discussion. It was just approved at budget committee yesterday and it is likely to pass. So it informed this budget conversation that we’re having at City Hall, that there is a desperate need to do something and that the city has a responsibility to invest in communities financially.
Jordan: In terms of the city’s budget and overall spending how big of an investment is this?
Jennifer: So $6 million is really a drop in the bucket when it comes to an operating budget. That’s this year, $13.5 billion. It’s hard to picture that amount of money, but we’re a city of 3 million people and that covers all kinds of services, but when it comes to. What has been spent in the past that’s $6 million more than doubles the new spending that was already planned for these types of initiatives. So that’s a huge, I think, shift in the direction the city is going. In the past when there has been violence, council has been quick to react, but it’s often to give more money to the police. And we know from research that that is not a good way to tackle violence in the longterm. It might make people feel safer in the short term, and there may be some immediate police actions that will actually briefly improve safety, but it’s never going to solve this issue of gun violence as we go forward, and it never has. And so this is a direction that, you know, academics and advocates say is completely necessary.
Jordan: What’s the reaction been to this announcement from Tory, but also just in general to, uh, the events of the past week and the past year? How United is counsel on this? Who’s, who’s pushing for what?
Jennifer: I think the overwhelming feeling is actually one frustration. You know, there is praise for the mayor’s pledge of this $6 million, because as I said, there’s this feeling that that shift in focus on what we’re funding is really needed. But at the same time, the city has often funded these kinds of initiatives in a really piecemeal way and always in a reactionary way instead of really planning on investing in youth in the longterm, in a very meticulous way. And that’s really challenging for the youth workers I talked to, even for the staff at city hall who do this kind of work and for these communities who have experienced even what one shooting does and the aftermath of that. And so there is this feeling that, you know, while we don’t want to criticize this or be ungrateful for this money, it’s never going to be enough money to just do $6 million. It has to be an ongoing investment and it has to be real. It can’t just be because there was a shooting in City Place over the weekend. It has to be because we actually care about these kids and we don’t want to see them continue to be killed.
Jordan: Is that the sense that that you got or that you were told by other councillors is that without the shooting on the weekend, that $6 million might not be there?
Jennifer: I think that we’ve seen a pattern where there is a shooting and the mayor or council reacts. I think there’s a feeling that, you know, in the midst of this budget cycle that it was an opportunity for the mayor to kind of promote something that he knew would be well received. Uh, that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t actually believe the money is needed. I actually, you know, having talked to him think that he does understand the need. Uh, but of course there’s always this like inherent cynicism when, especially from councillors who have been constantly challenging Tory to do more. I think it’s still a wait and see of whether this is just a onetime thing. Because if it is, then maybe that cynicism is valid, but there’s also the opportunity for the mayor and for council to do more. And I think that’s why I’ve called this a shift in direction because there’s still an opportunity for them to go down that path.
Jordan: What does do more look like? You’ve mentioned it a couple of times. Is it just more money? Is it a faster timeline? Is it more workers dedicated to it?
Jennifer: I think that it’s all of those things. Uh, we’ve in the past had strategies for tackling violence that have been announced with all of this fanfare. You know, in the summer of 2018 they put together, city staff put together a comprehensive anti gun violence plan. It was more than $50 million. But when council approved it, the entire plan relied on funding from other levels of government. The city didn’t put any of its own money in, and since then, most of the requests to those other levels of government were rejected and the city has never stepped up to really fill that gap. Most of the community based initiatives, it’s more than $26 million, have never been funded. They’re still not funded. And that’s the kind of longterm stuff I’m talking about where council made a commitment to this plan. They approved it, they patted themselves on the back, but it’s not funded.
Jordan: They’re not spending their money.
Jennifer: Right, and no money’s being spent at all. A very small amount was provided by the federal government for one program. Uh, which was needed. It was part of the plan. But if council is serious about the plan that it approved and that it said was needed, it’s hard to believe that when it’s not funded. And I think that sends the wrong message to these communities and to the youth workers and to the people who are relying on investment in order to provide this kind of help. We’re talking about intervening directly with youth who are really on the edge of violence. So that is youth workers working together with health professionals and police officers to ensure that there’s not retaliatory violence when a shooting happens or to provide youth with recreational opportunities or safe spaces like the youth hubs, so that they are offered opportunities outside of this cycle of violence. And those are very longterm commitments. It’s not something that can be fixed overnight. It is something that I think researchers and those working on the ground believe can happen in a generation. That there are youth that we have already lost, that we are currently losing, but we don’t have to lose their younger brothers.
Jordan: And this $6 million is at least city money and is coming.
Jennifer: It is city money. Yesterday the mayor’s budget chief moved to motion to put it into this budget. It still has to be approved by council, but that at this point is sort of inevitable given that it’s being pushed by the mayor and he has a majority of support on council. So we are fairly certain that that money will be approved and that it is a start.
Jordan: And in the meantime, if Airbnb does decide to do something about ghost hotels in Toronto, you’ll call us. Right?
Jennifer: I sure will.
Jordan: Thanks Jen.
Jennifer: Thanks so much.
Jordan: It turns out that later yesterday, Airbnb did indeed make an announcement following the shooting, and so we talked to Jen again. We reached her on the phone at City Hall and just asked her and they say?
Jennifer: So they just made an announcement this afternoon that they have changed the rules for young Canadians. So they now say that any Canadians under the age of 25 who don’t have what they call an established track record of positive reviews on their site won’t be able to rent out entire homes. Um, this has to obviously help with this party house situation that has been happening. And, uh, my colleague Tess Kalinowski also reports that they are, um, going to be giving a donation of $300,000 over three years to a group called Canadian Doctors for Protection from Guns, uh, in response to this most recent shooting.
Jordan: And I assume that, uh, the job of determining who is 25 and under will fall to Airbnb.
Jennifer: Yeah. There’s all kinds of information you have to provide, um, as both a renter and someone who is looking to rent a property. So it sounds as though they are prepared to police that. And again, this is all sort of, these are the rules and how well will they be followed, but that’s what they have promised at this point.
Jordan: Well uh, it’s something.
Jennifer: It’s something. This is a response from them, uh, after something that was very horrible. So we’ll follow that.
Jordan: Thanks a lot, Jen.
Jennifer: Thanks so much.
Jordan: Jennifer Pagliaro works at City Hall for the Toronto Star. That was The Big Story for more big stories, on the website, thebigstorypodcast.ca. Talk to us on Twitter at @thebigstoryfpn. Find all the Frequency podcasts you could possibly listen to at frequencypodcastnetwork.com find Frequency Podcast Network on social media at @frequencypods on Twitter, on Facebook, and on Instagram. You can listen to this or any of our shows and your favorite podcast application. We’re on Apple and Google and Stitcher and Spotify. Give us a rating. Give us a review. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow .
Back to top of page