The Tenant From Hell: How a serial fraudster took advantage of Toronto’s red-hot real estate market
The Tenant From Hell: How a serial fraudster took advantage of Toronto’s red-hot real estate market
The Tenant From Hell: How a serial fraudster took advantage of Toronto’s red-hot real estate market
In the summer of 2014, Wilf Dinnick, a former news correspondent, accepted a job running Al Jazeera’s website in Doha, Qatar. He and his wife, Sonia Verma, a newspaper reporter, had settled in Toronto in 2009. They bought a beautiful four-bedroom brick semi at 47 Lakeview Avenue, near Dundas and Ossington, for $719,000. They loved the area—minutes from Trinity Bellwoods Park, steps from their favourite restaurants and cafés, and surrounded by neighbours who quickly became close friends. Rather than sell the house before the move, they decided to rent it out. They knew that if they were ever going to return to Toronto, they would want to build their life in the same area. Plus, in a neighbourhood that continued to gentrify, selling didn’t make sense. They hired Chestnut Park, which deals with some of the most expensive real estate in the city, to manage the rental. For $4,000, Sarah Giacomelli, a realtor with over 20 years of experience, agreed to take care of everything: placing an ad, vetting the candidates, choosing the tenant and handling the paperwork. A few weeks after the family had arrived in Doha, Giacomelli reported that she’d found terrific tenants. The Gubbs were a family of four: Jesse, his girlfriend, Haruka, his brother, Troy, and his father, John. Jesse, who appeared to handle the rental negotiations for the family, worked in sales at a technology company called Web Factory Studios Canada. He drove a Range Rover, had more than $44,000 in savings and would have no trouble covering the $3,600 monthly rent. Another potential tenant showed interest in the property, but Gubb won them over with a sob story: he was trying to get his family, once estranged but newly reunited, under one roof. He upped his rent offer to $4,000 to seal the deal, and it worked.
The Gubbs’ tenancy began in October, as Dinnick and Verma adjusted to their new life in Doha. Dinnick loved his job, Verma had joined him at Al Jazeera as a senior producer, and their three kids were settling in at their new school. Verma had emailed Gubb to welcome him to their home and encouraged him to be in touch should any problems arise. Gubb sent a polite response saying he had purchased a leaf blower and was getting to know the neighbours. Everything, it appeared, had gone smoothly.
They had no inkling about what was really going on: Gubb was a serial fraudster who made a living by renting houses, claiming to be a tenant, then illegally subletting rooms to as many residents as he could cram in—almost always young women desperate for a piece of downtown living. Dinnick and Verma were only his latest victims.
In December 2014, about two months after Gubb assumed the lease, I met Karla, a 22-year-old woman from Vancouver, at a drop-in hip-hop dance class downtown. She had arrived about a month earlier to attend the Toronto Film School at Yonge and Dundas. I’m originally from Thunder Bay and know how alienating life in a big city can be, so I offered to take her out for a bite to eat. She gushed about how much she loved Toronto—the people, the culture, the energy. Karla’s one complaint, she said, was her landlord, a guy named Jesse who had seemed really nice at first but was growing weirder by the day. When she arrived in the city, she knew no one and had stayed in a hostel while she looked for a place to live. She needed something that was affordable—around $700 a month—but also relatively close to school and the part-time job she had landed as a cashier at the Eaton Centre Indigo.
On Craigslist, Karla found a room at 47 Lakeview listed for $550 a month. She emailed Jesse Gubb and made an appointment to check it out. He offered to pick her up from her hostel and drive her to the property. It was in a safe area, just steps away from the Dundas streetcar, and was big, clean and fully furnished—better than anything else she could afford downtown. She took the basement unit, which came with its own bathroom. Gubb explained that she would be sharing the house with three other young women, but the basement and bathroom were all hers. Instead of a lease, he asked her to sign a “room agreement,” a two-page document that, in addition to the rent and length of stay (one year), listed a number of rules. Shoes were to be stored at the back of the house only. There was a strict housekeeping schedule. On a rotating basis, each tenant had to sweep and mop the floors, clean the mirrors and windows, wipe down the kitchen counters, cabinets, stove and fridge, and scrub the bathroom. Failure to comply would result in a $50 fine. There was a $30 per day fee if the rent was ever late. Nowhere on the document was Gubb’s name or the address, which Karla found odd. But she signed her name, handed over her first and last months’ rent, and prepared to move in.
A few days later, she was shocked to discover that circumstances had changed. She arrived with her suitcase in hand, ready to meet her three housemates. When she got to her bedroom downstairs, she found four mattresses (another would be added later) crammed into the small room. Suitcases were everywhere, their contents spilling onto the floor. On the main floor were newly erected walls—framed, drywalled—that subdivided the living room into two bedrooms and turned the dining room into another. In the rooms upstairs were six more mattresses. Karla counted 14 other tenants, all female, ranging in age from about 19 to 25. Only she and one other tenant were native English speakers. The rest were new Canadians or visitors from China, Japan, France, Italy, Holland and elsewhere. The house had no living room, so the women crammed a table and chairs into the kitchen to have a place to gather. There was a severe lack of storage, so clothes, makeup and hair products covered virtually every surface. The kitchen, which had two fridges, was small, which meant dinnertime required complex scheduling. Privacy was virtually non-existent. Gubb would often turn up unannounced to show the property to even more prospective tenants, ignoring the legally required 24 hours’ notice. His girlfriend, Haruka, once burst into a bedroom while a tenant was sleeping; another time, Gubb barged in on the same tenant while she was changing.
Eventually, the women began noticing mail addressed to Dinnick and Verma, and suspected that Gubb likely wasn’t the real owner. Karla contemplated leaving, but she didn’t want to lose her last month’s rent. She confronted Gubb, but he was indifferent to her complaints. “It’s my house,” he told her. “I can do what I want.” Another resident, who was on a work visa from France, wanted to complain to the police about Gubb, but the other women begged her not to. They were afraid they’d be evicted.
In February, Gubb’s scheme nearly unravelled. Dinnick and Verma—who still had no idea what Gubb was up to—emailed him, explaining that their insurance provider needed access to the house to do an assessment. Gubb agreed, but he said that his father was about to have surgery. He asked the insurance inspector to refrain from entering the master bedroom so as not to disturb him. Then, on the inspection date, Gubb told his tenants to leave for three hours. In the biggest rooms, he pushed the beds together to look like one, and he hid all the other evidence in the master bedroom. The inspector didn’t notice anything amiss.
The day after Karla told me her story, I went online to see if I could find Gubb myself. After a few minutes on Kijiji, I found one of his listings: “Accepting females only,” the ad said. “We want a happy home…. We are looking for a wonderful individual(s).” The photos, showing a large and sunny living room and spacious bedrooms, weren’t of 47 Lakeview but of 995 Bathurst, another house Gubb had rented. I responded to the ad, saying I was a student looking for a place to live. Gubb replied a few hours later. “We are a very, very unique home,” his email said. “The house is super clean and organized. We know how important this is. A clean home is a happy home! I hope you’re excited about moving here and starting your next chapter of life with us.” I made an appointment to visit 995 Bathurst, and I arrived to find a beautiful three-storey white brick home. A young woman let me in. “Are you here to see Jesse?” she asked. “He’s not here. I’ll text him.” I squeezed through a narrow hallway into the tiny kitchen to wait for Gubb. The kitchen was dated but clean. A passive-aggressive note with an abundance of smiley faces and exclamation marks above the sink reminded tenants to do their dishes right away, and a cleaning schedule was posted on the wall. The woman who answered the door informed me that Gubb was on his way. She appeared to be a tenant who had grown accustomed to playing occasional receptionist for her landlord. Two other young women came into the kitchen for their morning coffee, and I chatted with them as I waited. One was a university exchange student from Germany. The other looked to be in her 30s, and had recently moved to Toronto from Alberta and found a job as a bartender.
“So how many people live here?” I asked.
“Not sure,” shrugged Germany. “Around 20.”
“There used to be 25,” Alberta added. They weren’t troubled by their unorthodox living situation, since it wasn’t permanent. After about 10 minutes of small talk, Gubb showed up. He was tall, and wore jeans and a fleece jacket. He had dark, gelled hair, and his demeanour was that of an over-caffeinated car salesman—constantly talking but never quite waiting for a reply. He apologized for his lateness and explained that he wasn’t much of a morning person, even though it was past 11 a.m. He gave me a tour of the house, the layout of which was peculiar. There was no living room, and the hallways were strangely narrow, a result of all the walls he’d erected to subdivide the space. On each of the three floors were several medium-size bedrooms, some with three to five single mattresses on the floor. He boasted about how unique the home was, how well everyone got along and how close the subway was. In the bedrooms, the tenants’ belongings were piled around their mattresses. Like the kitchen, the bathrooms were clean, with notes everywhere reminding the residents that a clean home is a happy home.
The City of Toronto defines a rooming house as a dwelling where four or more unrelated people share a kitchen or bathroom and pay individual rent. The laws governing rooming houses vary across the city, a remnant of pre-amalgamation. They’re illegal just about everywhere except the old city of Toronto and Etobicoke, where they must be licensed and satisfy fire code regulations that are stricter than those of a single family home—such as emergency lighting in hallways and stairwells, illuminated exit signs, fire extinguishers on each floor and in each kitchen, an interconnected smoke alarm system, and at least two exits on each floor. They are intended, in part, to protect tenants who may not have any incentive to warn their housemates of a fire, since they are often strangers. In Toronto, there are roughly 300 licensed rooming houses, which are inspected once a year. A recent report from the Wellesley Institute estimates as many as 10,000 people live in rooming houses, although since there is no way of monitoring the unlicensed properties, there are possibly many more. No investigative efforts are made to identify illegal ones—the city relies solely on tips. From 2010 to 2014, 3,936 complaints were made to 311 about suspected illegal rooming houses, an average of almost three calls per day. The inspectors then report infractions, usually to the fire department and the city’s municipal licensing and standards division, both of which have the ability to lay charges.
Toronto’s high rents—the average for a one-bedroom condo downtown is $1,600—and soaring population have made the city a breeding ground for illegal rooming houses. In an ideal scenario, Toronto Community Housing Corporation, the agency tasked with providing affordable housing to low- and moderate-income residents, would provide a safety valve. But the organization is a mess, saddled with a lack of funding, a $914-million repair backlog and chronic mismanagement. As a result, there are currently 92,000 families on the waiting list for subsidized housing. Rooming houses, with rents of about $500 per month, are an enticing alternative: by sacrificing privacy, safety (at least in illegal setups) and fridge space, low-income Torontonians can live affordably close to downtown.
Yet the danger is much greater than many realize. Illegal rooming houses are notorious for poor repairs, shoddy ventilation, few windows, bedbugs, cockroaches and rodents—but the greatest risk by far is fire. In a house where more than a dozen people may be sharing a kitchen, tenants tend to use hot plates in their bedrooms. In 2011, a fire in an illegal rooming house in Etobicoke killed 56-year-old Karnail Singh Dhaliwal. He died of smoke inhalation when a hot plate in his room caught fire. A friend who was staying in his room, Harbir Bhinder, suffered severe burns. The owner, Jasvir Singh, was convicted of criminal negligence causing death and sentenced to three years in prison. Singh was found to have purposely misled Toronto Fire Services when they inspected his property after receiving a complaint. He passed off his rooming house as a single-family home by fabricating documents indicating his tenants were related to each other. He has appealed the ruling. In October 2014, a fire in an illegal rooming house on Gladstone near Dundas critically injured two people who suffered serious burns. It started when a tenant who was cooking in the second-floor kitchen left a pot unattended. Fire inspectors later found 12 fire code violations, including a complete lack of functioning smoke detectors. The owner of the property, Khin Siek Kang, was fined $290,000, as well as $70,000 in court costs. And last year, two men were killed and 10 people injured in a fire in an illegal rooming house in Kensington Market. The owners of the house, Buu Vuong, Khanh Ly Diep and Trinh Lam, were found guilty of 13 fire code violations, fined a total of $136,500 and each given two years’ probation.
For Gubb, who refused to be interviewed for this story, the less affordable housing there is, the better. Since 2013, he has fraudulently secured leases for at least four houses and rented them out to as many people as he could squeeze in. Based on his Lakeview earnings, multiplied by four houses, he would have been raking in roughly $200,000 a year.
After he gave me a tour of 995 Bathurst, I headed to city hall to find out if he did in fact own the properties as he claimed. To no great surprise, he didn’t. The city’s tax roll listed the owners of 47 Lakeview as Wilf Dinnick and Sonia Verma. Shortly after, I pitched the story to Toronto Life. What I didn’t know was that Verma had written for the magazine in the past and—an even wilder coincidence—that she and her husband were friends with the editor. With my permission, the editor contacted Verma and Dinnick to alert them to my discovery and to suggest they speak to me. They were gobsmacked, and at first they didn’t believe me. It had to be a mistake, they said. They had hired a reputable firm to find a tenant, and as far as they knew, he had a sterling record. I insisted that I was telling the truth. Verma dug up a copy of Gubb’s application to Chestnut Park and googled the tech company where he claimed to work. She came up empty. She then searched Gubb’s name and found an alarming article. In 2002, police arrived at his Queen East apartment after responding to complaints about paintballs being fired at cars. Gubb and his roommate, Adam Wookey, fled the apartment, but police found 42 grams of cocaine, more than 100 grams of marijuana, more than $5,000 in cash, two stolen rifles and a sawed-off shotgun with the serial number burned off. Wookey pleaded guilty to gun possession and drug trafficking charges, while Gubb was charged with possession and received a $200 fine. Verma’s disbelief turned to indignation. She and Dinnick discussed flying back to deal with the issue in person, but first they contacted a lawyer who had a better idea: hire The Terminator.
April Stewart is a 47-year-old paralegal who specializes in evicting difficult and intractable renters. She founded a company called Landlord Legal in 2006 after working for years as a property manager and has become an advocate for landlords. “People say I’m like a mix of a bloodhound, a cop and Erin Brockovich,” she told Verma and Dinnick. “It’s never good to be on my radar.” In Ontario, it can be near-impossible to evict problem tenants. While the rules are in place to protect tenants from unscrupulous landlords, they allow opportunists like Gubb to take advantage of the system. That’s an imbalance Stewart would like to correct. Over the years, she has evicted hundreds of tenants. One was selling the owners’ belongings online, right down to the backyard shed. Another, angry after his sexual advances on his landlady were rebuffed, tried to sabotage her attempts to sell the house by leaving pornography and filthy underwear lying about during showings. Yet another opted to run the hot water all day in the basement unit so that the upstairs owners wouldn’t have any. Technically, tenant fraud is a crime, but police often brush it off, treating it as a civil matter to be worked out by residents.
Dinnick and Verma hired Stewart, who connected with Karla and the other tenants at the Lakeview house. Gubb’s lease with Dinnick and Verma clearly stated that only those listed on the rental application were to occupy the premises. Stewart needed proof that Gubb had violated those terms so she could ask the Landlord and Tenant Board to terminate the tenancy. Karla and another tenant let Stewart’s private investigator into the house to take photos and video of the walls Gubb had erected and the many mattresses throughout. Stewart sent a letter to the rest of the occupants, informing them that Gubb was not the owner of 47 Lakeview. She also informed Toronto Fire Services that Gubb was operating an illegal rooming house. A fire inspector visited and found nine violations: failure to provide fire extinguishers, failure to provide an interconnected smoke alarm system, failure to provide adequate exits, failure to provide walls and floors using materials with adequate fire resistance, and failure to provide exit signs. Armed with the proof she needed, Stewart sent Gubb a notice of hearing at the Landlord and Tenant Board.
Gubb panicked. He emailed Dinnick and Verma claiming the whole thing was a misunderstanding. But they had seen the evidence. “It was horrifying,” says Verma. “I barely recognized it as my own home. Walls had been put up everywhere. We couldn’t tell which room was which. The basement, which had been renovated the year before, was unrecognizable.” Verma and Dinnick didn’t write back, as Stewart had advised. Gubb emailed again and hinted that he could pay more rent. Again, they ignored him. Gubb then called a house meeting at Lakeview with the remaining tenants. (Some had left upon receiving Stewart’s letter.) Huddled together, terrified they were about to become homeless, they demanded answers. Gubb informed them of his plan. “The only thing I can possibly think of is to…make it look like there’s only three people here,” Gubb said. One of the tenants asked him, “So, basically, you want us to lie?” Gubb replied, “Yeah.” He explained how he would rearrange their belongings to make it look like there were only three tenants, then move everything back once the fire department was satisfied. The tenants didn’t think that would work. “One hundred per cent they will buy it,” Gubb assured them. “I’ve done things like this. I know exactly how they operate.” They refused to participate. Gubb tried playing the victim: “I’ve cried. I’ve been through a lot,” he told them. They held firm. Gubb left.
He emailed Verma and Dinnick again, explaining that he had always kept the house in great condition. He obliquely threatened legal action: “I have been advised to start litigation against anyone using slander or defamation immediately and begin with my own waiver of tort. I am requesting that you correctly disclose information about me or anyone affiliated to me, and correct what has already been said falsely.” He asked them to settle the matter informally. Again, they ignored him.
A month later, Stewart prepared to face off with Gubb at the Landlord and Tenant Board. Her case was formidable: five tenants were ready to testify. She had a signed affidavit from another, a video statement from Dinnick, copies of Gubb’s bizarre rental contract, and photos and video of Gubb’s renovations. Stewart was eager for a courtroom battle. To her disappointment, Gubb folded. He stood meekly in front of the LTB chairperson, and agreed to terminate the lease and abandon all possessions in the home. Dinnick and Verma gave the tenants a few weeks to make other arrangements. On May 15, six months after Gubb signed the lease, he was gone, the tenants were out, and Dinnick and Verma had their house back.
After the hearing was adjourned, Gubb approached Giacomelli, the realtor Verma and Dinnick had hired, who had been in the back row taking notes. He tried to apologize, but Giacomelli refused to hear him out. I then introduced myself as a journalist and asked if she’d answer a few questions. Her eyes welled up, and she quickly left. It’s unclear how Giacomelli allowed Gubb to become a tenant in the first place. His rental application for the Lakeview house lists an employer that doesn’t appear to exist. He included two personal references, one with a phone number that’s now disconnected. The other was a former co-worker, who would only tell me he is not on good terms with Gubb. I contacted Chestnut Park for an explanation. Their CEO and president, Chris Kapches, declined to comment, citing client confidentiality. According to Dinnick and Verma, Giacomelli was devastated by her mistake and refunded her original $4,000 commission.
I decided to look into Gubb’s other rental properties. In July 2013, he secured a lease at 17 Huron Street, telling the owners, Vancouver residents Michael and Samantha Tam, the same family-reunion sob story he had used on Verma and Dinnick. For the credit and reference checks, Gubb supplied his brother’s name and driver’s licence. Troy Gubb could pass for Jesse’s twin, so the photo on the ID wasn’t an issue. The results came back clean. (Troy is in fact a hobby dog trainer who performs with his French bulldog, Carl, across Toronto. He told me he has never set foot in 17 Huron and has nothing to do with his brother’s enterprise. “You can’t choose your family,” he said.) In the spring of 2014, the Tams’ property manager informed them that the Gubbs did not seem to occupy the house at all. Instead, roughly 20 people who appeared to be students were living there, constantly streaming in and out like it was a university residence. The Tams called Gubb and immediately flew to Toronto to investigate, but by the time they arrived at the house, he had erased almost all evidence of his actions. Gubb, posing as Troy, told the Tams that his younger brother, “Jesse,” had let some friends stay at the house. The Tams bought the explanation and gave him another chance. A few months later, the fire department informed the Tams that their property had again been converted into an illegal rooming house with a number of fire code violations, including obstructed exits and failure to provide fire extinguishers. They took Gubb to the Landlord and Tenant Board, and on April 22, 2015, his lease was terminated.
I tracked down the owners of 995 Bathurst, the house Gubb showed me when I first emailed him. Yuill McGregor and his wife, Sylvie Turbide, live less than a kilometre away. When I told them Gubb was renting out their house to more than 20 people, they were shocked. They had bought the place as an investment property and found Gubb through Debbie Walter, another Chestnut Park realtor, who also declined to comment for this story. Gubb’s lease began in December 2013. McGregor and Turbide received a few complaints from the city about garbage and parking violations, but when they notified Gubb, he quickly resolved them. They decided against legal action or bringing the matter to the Landlord and Tenant Board. Instead, they gave Gubb two months’ notice, and Gubb agreed to get rid of the tenants and repair the damage. A week later, the fire department inspected the home based on a tip and found 16 violations. McGregor and Turbide are on the hook for $800,000.
I discovered a fourth Gubb-operated rooming house—a five-bedroom semi at 875 Bathurst. He rented it from a man named Jack Fong (who refused to speak to me), then sublet it to more than 10 people. Gubb faces charges for eight fire code violations at that property.
While the Landlord and Tenant Board is largely toothless, Toronto Fire Services can be aggressive. To date, they have registered 44 fire code violations against Gubb for 47 Lakeview, 17 Huron, 995 Bathurst and 875 Bathurst. Each charge comes with a maximum sentence of one year in jail and a $50,000 fine, so technically Gubb faces a maximum of $2.2 million in fines and 44 years of jail time—though both will likely be reduced during the court process. Cases like his tend to take more than a year to be resolved, which means there likely won’t be a verdict until 2016. In the meantime, the city is conducting a review of rooming house policy. Licensing and standards staff are hopeful that regulations will be streamlined across the entire city. The findings will go to executive committee in December.
Back in Doha, Dinnick and Verma are trying to put the entire episode behind them. Because they notified Fire Services of Gubb’s actions immediately, the charges against them have been dropped. They returned in July for a visit and inspected the house, which a contractor has restored to its pre-Gubb state. The only remnants: notes on the washing machine saying laundry can only be done once every two weeks, and stickers subdividing the fridge by tenant. Dinnick and Verma found new renters—a family from B.C.—again using Giacomelli (who waived her fee). Verma interviewed them in person, googled them, reviewed their credit checks and spoke with each of their references. She hired a property manager, too. In the end, thanks mostly to April Stewart, they have their house back, the tenants are safe and, sooner or later, Gubb will stand before a judge.