April and I moved onto Gilmour Street in January 2010. The one-bedroom apartment on the main floor was a beautiful place to call home. The scent of lilac drifted through the front windows every spring; we played with our dog and hosted barbecues in the big backyard. And we loved the neighbourhood, with its diverse mix of young families, professionals, retirees, and students — from the well-heeled to the unemployed. Our block is not perfect, but neighbours tend to know each other. We daydreamed of buying a property on the street, raising a family, and growing old in the community.
All that began to change when the lilac tree was cut down to make way for a renovation of the house next door. Soon we noticed that some of our neighbours were gone. We heard it had been converted into an Airbnb. Initially, we didn’t have any strong feelings about the change. Although we were aware of the affordable-housing crisis, we did not fully consider the ramifications of the Airbnb model on housing availability and affordability. Being the kind of people who like to travel and who consider using Airbnb ourselves, we did not appreciate the other negative repercussions of what is essentially an unsupervised, unregulated hotel.
Then, in October 2018, I read in the news that there had been an early-morning shooting just down the street from us. The victim was shot through the front window of an Airbnb where he was staying. It was close to the route I walked every day to work. This was an unpleasant thing to think about on the morning trek to the office, but it could easily be construed as an isolated incident. That bit of tranquility lasted about six months, ending one spring morning when we were awoken to the sound of an altercation happening in front of our home. We heard multiple gunshots and scrambled to the floor while trying to keep our heads down — especially awkward for April, who was five months pregnant at the time.
I told the responding police that at least one of the two people involved stayed in the Airbnb next door. They took statements, collected bullet casings, and photographed the bullet holes. They issued a press release stating the guns-and-gangs unit was investigating.
My wife was nursing our two-month-old daughter, wondering what the odd rhythmic banging noise could be. Then she heard the scream and realized it was muffled gunfire. April took cover in the bathroom with our daughter.
When summer came, it brought a diverse stream of tourists to the Airbnb. Groups of loud men, some of whom were given to leering over the back fence, made our yard less inviting. Large groups congregated in the parking lot at the back late into the night, blasting music loud enough to make our windows vibrate. In an attempt to improve things, we tried contacting the owner, but the only way was through his Airbnb profile. “Pierre” was unresponsive. His Airbnb profile read, “I feel like I’m very energetic and enthusiastic about life. I always say live everyday like it’s your last :)”
After one particularly loud party, we called the city to complain about the noise. When they called us back a few days later, we told the bylaw officer that the property was an Airbnb “ghost hotel.” She did not mention that the block is not permitted to host short-term rentals; we learned about that after the next shooting.
On the morning of January 8, the Airbnb next door became the scene of the city’s first homicide of 2020. Manyok Akol, 18, died of his injuries after shots were fired at him and three of his friends, who were between the ages of 15 and 20. My wife was nursing our two-month-old daughter, wondering what the odd rhythmic banging noise could be. Then she heard the scream and realized it was muffled gunfire. April took cover in the bathroom with our daughter. The sound of sirens followed, but April remained hidden. It was only after she saw the police had arrived and had taken control of the situation that she came out.
I came home from work early and passed through two police barricades to get to the front door. A pool of blood remained on the porch and stained the snow at 490 Gilmour for several days. This was the third and most horrific shooting incident on Gilmour Street since October of 2018. All of them occurred at or in front of an Airbnb, all on weekday mornings.
Soon after, we learned that Airbnb had delisted the host and the property and that a notice of violation had been issued by the city for 490 Gilmour. Our relief was mixed with sadness and anger. Why did it take the murder of an 18-year-old for the city to take action?
Then, while there was still broken glass and blood on the porch of 490 Gilmour, Pierre’s profile — and all units in 488 Gilmour — came back up on Airbnb.com. I contacted our councillor, Catherine McKenney, and the CBC. We learned the notice of violation had been amended to include 488 Gilmour. Airbnb issued an apology and delisted the host — again. It seems like tenants have moved in, as I see the same cars come and go. In May, an arrest was made in the shooting: a 15-year-old boy, who police believe helped to plan the attack, has been charged with first-degree murder and three counts of attempted murder.
Our friends and family insist that we should move. But where? The ghost-hotel model can bring problems — wild parties, prostitution, and gun violence — to any neighbourhood. So no matter where we move, we will probably be scrutinizing the short-term rental websites for properties close to us and overreacting to every loud noise outside our home.
Colin Gillespie is a Centretown resident, public servant, and new father.