The tenant from hell: how a serial fraudster took advantage of Toronto’s red-hot real estate market
By Kat Shermack
23 August 2015
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
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
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.
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.
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
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).”
showing a large and sunny living room and spacious bedrooms, weren’t of
47 Lakeview but of 995 Bathurst, another house Gubb had rented.
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
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.
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.
Image: Aleksandar Janicijevic
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
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
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
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.
by Dave Gillespie, clockwise from top: 995 Bathurst: Gubb rented this
six-bedroom house to roughly 25 tenants desperate for housing close to
downtown. He currently faces fines for 16 fire code violations related
to the property; 875 Bathurst: Gubb leased this five-bedroom,
1,975-square-foot semi to at least 10 people. He faces eight fire code
violations related to the property; 17 Huron: Gubb crammed some 20
tenants into this three-bedroom semi. When the owners caught on, he
pinned the blame on his brother and successfully pleaded for a second
chance. Gubb currently faces 11 fines for fire code violations at the
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.
guilty to gun possession and drug trafficking charges, while Gubb was
charged with possession and received a $200 fine.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.)
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.
Gubb to the Landlord and Tenant Board, and on April 22, 2015, his lease
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
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.
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.
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
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.