In early 2019, John Davies and his wife, Li Guo, bought a house in Kleinburg, Ontario—a new build with enough space that they invited Guo’s parents to come live with them. That left the Guo family home in nearby Thornhill empty. Guo’s parents had owned the brick-front house on Brookshire Circle for almost a decade, so rather than selling it, Davies, a 70-year-old University of Toronto professor, and Guo, a homemaker, decided to help the couple rent it out. They hired a real estate broker, who by summer thought he’d found the ideal tenant. 

Arif Adnan Syed depicted himself as an ordinary family man. It was easy to picture him, his wife and their two young children sharing dinners in the house’s spacious dining room, watching Disney movies in the family room or playing in the tree-shaded backyard. At 2,750 square feet, the house had four bedrooms—enough for the parents, both children and a room left over for in-laws, who Syed suggested would be moving in. It was close to several schools and a swath of walkable green space. 

Davies had never met Syed or the family he talked about, but saw no reason to doubt his broker’s assessment of them. On June 13, 2019, Davies and his wife signed a one-year, $3,300-per-month lease with Syed. They expected him and his family to move into the house that July.

Davies didn’t hear from Syed that summer, but he was too busy to notice. He and Guo were settling into their new house with his in-laws, and—he thought—Syed and his family were settling into theirs. It was November before Davies realized he hadn’t spoken to his new tenant. Syed had promised to collect any mail that slipped through to the Guos’ old address. Surely, Davies thought, there would be some by this point. So he phoned Syed. And phoned. With no answer, he eventually decided to go knock on the door. He was startled when a woman he didn’t recognize answered. She let him in, pointing to a mountain of mail on the kitchen table. Davies picked it up, shuffled through the envelopes and quickly realized none of them were addressed to his in-laws. 

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Then, with a slow-moving sense of horror, he noticed the striped brown-and-beige curtain separating the hallway from the living room. A few more steps took him to another drab curtain cordoning off the dining room. Davies’ emotions oscillated between shock, anger and confusion as he toured the rest of the once-pristine house. Syed had transformed at least 11 rooms into makeshift individual units. One couple lived in what had once been the house’s office; another occupied the dining room. There was a man inhabiting the family room. Several rooms had entire families with children living in them, their doors secured by newly installed, double-sided locks.

In the basement, Davies found pillows and blankets stuffed against the wall of a small storage space. There was similar evidence that somebody had been sleeping in the narrow furnace room. The main-floor living room had been outfitted as a hair salon, complete with a leather-and-chrome barber chair where, to Davies’ astonishment, a man sat getting a haircut. Blooms of black mould spread across the ceilings in the basement, damage from an unrepaired kitchen sink leak. 

Mind whirling, he phoned Syed again, as a group of tenants—some of them surprised to discover Syed was not the owner of the house—hovered nearby, listening in. This time, Syed answered. 

Davies angrily confronted his tenant, demanding to know what was going on. He threatened eviction. Yet, through it all, Syed seemed remarkably calm. There was no denial, no anxious backpedalling, not so much as a hurried excuse. In fact, he seemed downright arrogant. He responded to Davies with an unapologetic invitation, repeated over and over: “Take me to court. I’ll see you in court.” 

Davies agreed to the showdown, expecting a quick and clear-cut path to an eviction order. He didn’t yet realize Syed had good reason to believe himself untouchable. “He knew what he was doing, and I didn’t,” says Davies. “I’d never experienced anything like this before and he was an expert. He knew every conceivable loophole.” 

Davies wasn’t Syed’s only victim. Over the next few months, he’d learn his tenant had charmed and swindled at least a dozen landlords across the Greater Toronto Area. Most, like Davies, had used real estate brokers to find people to lease their luxury homes. Syed declined to be interviewed for this story, but he appeared during this period to focus his efforts on the toniest neighbourhoods of Richmond Hill, Thornhill and Markham, divvying up the rooms in each house into individual units and posting them for rent on Kijiji at a supposed bargain—anywhere from $500 to $975 a month. Under the name “Jay” he’d lured desperate, vulnerable renters with promises of no last-month’s rent deposit and no credit checks. 

At the height of his operation, he had more than 100 tenants, and was raking in tens of thousands of dollars every month. For Syed, everything was going to plan. For Davies, the nightmare was only beginning.

***

It is mind-bogglingly expensive to live in Canada’s big cities. In April, Vancouver ranked as the country’s priciest place to rent a one-bedroom apartment at an average of $2,280 per month. Toronto was not far behind, at $2,023. Students, new Canadians, older and racialized renters, people on disability support and those simply down on their luck struggle to find affordable housing. That’s where rooming houses, or multi-tenant homes as they’re officially dubbed, come in. In such houses, the average rent is often more attainable; the monthly range in Toronto, for instance, is between $400 and $700. Across Canada, some jurisdictions have made multi-tenant homes a part of their affordable housing plans. In the Greater Toronto Area, however, things are more complicated. 

Certain areas, like Toronto and Etobicoke, license and regulate multi-tenant homes. Toronto is estimated to have about 350 legal rooming houses operating within its limits (along with an unknown multitude of illegal ones). The landlords of these licensed buildings are required to meet fire, property and safety standards and submit to regular inspections. In other areas, including Scarborough and North York, such homes are both illegal and unregulated. They do, of course, still exist, but without mandated measures to keep tenants safe. 

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The consequences of this regulatory gap can be devastating. In Toronto, there were 14 fire-related deaths in unlicensed rooming houses between 2010 and 2020. In 2018, 18-year-old University of Toronto student Helen Guo (no relation to Davies’ wife, Li) died in an early-morning fire at her Scarborough rooming house. Three other students who lived there managed to escape, one by jumping out of a second-storey window. In Moncton, New Brunswick, about 20 people in one rooming house were recently evicted after the city’s fire department declared the building uninhabitable. Fire officials estimate Moncton’s downtown has several hundred unregistered rooming houses; dozens have been deemed unsafe and shut down over the past decade.

Most tenants are aware when their living conditions are dangerous, but are reluctant to demand better because of their precarious positions. Dania Majid, a staff lawyer at the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario, is trying to change this. “There are people who will try to take a predatory approach, trying to capitalize on the high rent and the desperation for low-income housing,” she says.  

Majid’s organization is part of a decade-long push to standardize multi-tenant housing across the boroughs of Toronto. After punting the issue a couple of times, city council is expected to vote this year on a proposal to legalize and regulate rooming houses throughout the city. If it passes without change, it will limit the number of rooms in multi-tenant houses to six in most neighbourhoods, and up to 25 in more densely populated areas. Crucially, homes with more than 10 rooms will require an electrical evaluation. To ensure landlords follow the new rules, the city also plans to beef up its enforcement and inspection staff.

At the height of his operation, Syed had more than 100 tenants and was raking in tens of thousands of dollars every month

In the meantime, scammers and slum lords proliferate, taking advantage of cracks in the system. Some, like Syed, are extreme opportunists, duping both homeowners and tenants. Others own their own properties, yet seem to care little about what happens at the houses so long as they bring in rent. Even a cramped, dirty or unsafe room might appeal to someone with limited options. It’s better than a shelter, or the street. 

***

If Syed thought he could run a grift in plain sight, it was because he’d done it so many times in the past. In 2010, he faced one of his first arrests in Project Overhaul, a Toronto police investigation into a ring of fraudulent moving companies, all connected to Syed and members of his family. Police alleged Syed’s stepfather, Syed Altaf Hussain, had trained Arif and his brother, Syed Amit Monwar Hussain, to set up a numbered company and develop several moving businesses under different names. They would advertise each with too-good-to-be-true rates. Then, once a customer’s possessions were loaded into their truck, they would hold the belongings hostage until the victim agreed to pay a jacked-up price. If a customer looked too intimidating to swindle, the team would simply get its moving deposit up front, then jump into their truck and drive away without loading anything. 

Syed registered his numbered company in 2006, and over the years the brothers formed 19 bogus moving businesses—13 of which belonged to Syed, the stepfather’s apparent protege. 

By June 2008, the Better Business Bureau had received nearly 30 complaints about several of Syed’s corporate aliases. One customer, who spoke to the Toronto Star, hired Syed’s Scarborough-based company Dynamic Movers, who quoted him less than $500 to move his stuff from an old apartment to a new one about 200 metres away. The movers showed up in a truck branded with the name of another of Syed’s businesses, Desi Movers, and, after loading everything, charged $1,497.50 in fees for having to move heavy items and use stairs. If the client didn’t pay, they said, they’d throw his stuff in storage. 

The man called the police, but the officer who arrived decided not to intervene because of a small-print warning in the moving contract stating extra charges may apply—a loophole that helped Syed operate for years without criminal sanction. If scammed customers wanted to pursue him, they’d likely have to go to civil court. Meanwhile, the movers added more fees to the bill to cover their time spent talking to the police. The customer coughed up the money: “All of my worldly possessions were on their truck, right down to my toothbrush. I felt I was being ransomed just to get it all back.” 

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After receiving 17 complaints, police finally issued a public warning about two of the Syed family’s business aliases, Desi Movers and Indo-Pak Movers, in November of 2009. Syed seemed unfazed: “The main problem isn’t me; it’s the public,” he told the Star at the time. “People are so cheap. If I change my name today and put $2 less on the hourly rate, they will still come to me.” 

Sure enough, by May of 2010, the police had received another 15 complaints. That month, they raided the Scarborough building from which the family ran its scam. They seized 13 moving trucks, $20,000 in cash and two cars, an Audi and a Mercedes-Benz. Syed initially faced 50 charges, including 11 counts of fraud under $5,000 and nine counts of extortion. He was just 27. His mug shot shows a square-faced man with his head slightly cocked and green shirt collar popped, staring at the camera with an expression of indifference.  

In the fallout, Ontario’s attorney general moved under civil forfeiture laws to seize Syed’s cars, his moving trucks, his bank accounts and the five-bedroom Markham home he shared with his wife, Sanjida, and their two sons, aged four and two. His brush with the law didn’t seem to scare him. He continued his moving-business scam through a corporate entity registered to Sanjida—until they were caught and she also had her assets frozen. In 2012 they unsuccessfully petitioned the court to free up some of the family’s money for debts and living expenses. 

They claimed to owe creditors more than $100,000 and said the mortgage on their 4,200-square-foot home had just matured. Syed said his main income came from an auto repair shop and car sales business, which he claimed brought in as much as $2,000 per month in the winter and $3,000 per month in the summer. He and Sanjida said they had been buying and flipping used cars, selling them overseas or stripping them for parts. But mostly they lived on tens of thousands of dollars of credit card debt, they said, something they’d been doing for years. 

It was around this time that Syed embarked on his first scam as an illegal, unlicensed car dealer, otherwise known as a curbsider. He would buy used cars on the cheap, roll back the odometers to make the clunkers more attractive to buyers, and then sell them for more than he paid. In 2015, the Ontario Motor Vehicle Industry Council, or OMVIC, convicted him of curbsiding and fined him $5,000. Two of his companies were also found guilty and fined a total of $25,000. 

In late 2018, Syed was caught running another alleged curbsiding operation and slapped by OMVIC with an additional 34 charges. The investigation in that case continues, but it was by no means the last into Syed’s auto sales hustles. Weeks after filing the charges, the council got yet another tip—this time from a customer who’d responded to an ad for a 2010 Toyota Camry, whose odometer had been rolled back from 217,000 kilometres to 155,000. OMVIC dispatched an undercover shopper to check out vehicles Syed had stored for sale behind an apartment complex in Scarborough. There, he told the shopper he had five more cars parked behind another apartment building. OMVIC released its own public warning about Syed, and handed down still more charges. 

***

Through all of this, Syed was operating his most lucrative scam of all: the rooming houses. A fudged name here, a few fake documents there, police say, and he could evade anyone who checked up on him online. As usual, he was anything but contrite. Syed later told media he didn’t feel remorse because he never intended to damage his landlords’ houses (never mind that his lease stated the houses would remain single-family dwellings). Sure, he wanted to make money, he said, but he also wanted to help people; his tenants were like his family. He insisted he was housing those in need. “To get a place is so difficult,” he later told the Toronto Star. “They need a credit check, a job.” When asked if he saw himself as a Robin Hood figure, he shucked off the comparison. “I wouldn’t think of myself as that. I don’t want to give myself a character. I am who I am.”

He did have one thing in common with Robin Hood: he was exceedingly hard to stop. Larry Swanton, who lived on a normally quiet street in Unionville, northeast of Toronto, learned that the hard way. He had moved to his affluent neighbourhood in 1984, enjoying three decades of placid suburban life. Then, in October of 2018, Syed signed a lease for the house across the street. It didn’t take long for Swanton to realize something was wrong with his new neighbour. On a warm night early that month, Swanton and his wife, Christina, were sleeping with the windows open. Around 2 a.m., he heard an engine revving. He looked outside to see the driver of a red Corvette, who he later learned was Syed, exchange a wad of cash with another man. 

Less than a week later, he saw a white cube van pull up to the house, and watched someone unload one mattress after another, lugging them into the home. It seemed like new people were moving in every day. At the same time, cars clogged the driveway, spilling onto the street. Swanton quickly realized many of them didn’t belong to the house’s growing tenant population. Syed was selling them, or trying to. His preferred model seemed to be the Honda Civic, and Swanton, a car enthusiast, thought they all looked like junkers. Plus, he saw none that had legitimate dealer plates. He immediately reported Syed as a curbsider to OMVIC, who in turn opened an investigation. But Syed couldn’t be spooked.

Swanton, a pilot, was on seasonal hiatus from work at the time. So over the next several months, he turned monitoring and reporting Syed into a full-time job. He also rallied his distressed neighbours, about 20 of whom started an email chain to keep tabs on Syed and his many tenants. They had a lot to complain about. Syed’s curbsider business was bustling, with both cars and potential buyers filling the street. And the new tenants of his rooming house were loud. Night after night, the Swantons woke to startling noises: angry shouting, revving engines, blasting music. Cars idled for hours in the driveway.

In Unionville, as in other places Syed ran his rooming houses, the scene devolved from nuisance into public safety hazard. While many of Syed’s tenants were peaceful, others were violent. Some abused alcohol and drugs, and a few appeared to have untreated mental illness. It made for a tense, chaotic atmosphere that spilled into the surrounding neighbourhood. More than once, Swanton witnessed clandestine exchanges of what he suspected was money for drugs. Sometimes, he walked by the house and saw condoms, foil wrappers and other paraphernalia littering the driveway and grass.

Swanton snapped photos of it all, gathering evidence. A few times, Syed caught him and confronted him. During one fraught exchange, Syed told him he couldn’t do a thing to stop him—he had been operating like this for years. Swanton scoffed at the challenge, telling Syed they’d both find out soon enough. “But I had to eat my words,” he acknowledges, “because nobody could do anything.”

By Swanton’s count, police visited the house nearly 50 times in less than three months, responding mostly to complaints from upset neighbours. Yet Syed’s scams continued to flourish. He always seemed to know just what to say, just how far to cross the line. Ubers showed up constantly with people looking to rent rooms. More and more tenants filed in. Swanton, meanwhile, wasn’t ready to give up. He kept calling OMVIC to report curbsiding, and the city to report the illegal rooming house. He took hundreds of photos. The due diligence felt necessary, if ineffective. Swanton and his neighbours didn’t just want Syed punished; they wanted him out. 

Then they caught a break. Swanton knew Syed’s rooming house was owned by a man living in China at the time. So he set out to track down the owner, gathering the names of local real estate agencies and calling them one by one until he found the broker who had rented to Syed. It turned out the homeowner’s son-in-law lived nearby. Swanton reached out and told him everything. The son-in-law came by and, shocked by what he saw, promised to start the eviction process. Swanton, meanwhile, gathered enough information to determine Syed’s real name and googled him, finding out about his past curbsiding convictions. He grew so angry that he took to warning potential customers away from Syed. The instant a family arrived to look at a car, a watchful Swanton ran out his front door to tell them Syed had rolled back the odometer. If he thwarted a sale, Syed grew furious. When Swanton wasn’t around, though, he kept selling. 

In November of 2018, under the guise of a fake dealership, Euro Premium Auto Ltd., Syed bought a 2007 Toyota Camry with 295,807 kilometres on it and, four days later, posted a Kijiji ad for the car saying it had clocked only 166,000 kilometres. He wanted $5,000. Another time, he tried to sell a 2006 Honda to a young woman; the car had driven 421,000 kilometres, but he’d rolled back the odometer to just 165,000. Each time, he made the car sound like a bargain. In 2018, Syed sold 26 cars.

Swanton says the antagonism between them came to a head late that year when Syed twice threatened to “put him in the hospital.” Swanton reported it to the police, who brought him into a small room he says made him feel like he was on a TV cop show. He answered questions about the incident and the feud for over an hour—long enough that Swanton wondered whether he was being interviewed or interrogated. Ultimately, his complaint went nowhere. 

Swanton doesn’t know whether Syed would have followed through on the threats. But afterward, his wife worried constantly that something would happen, either to her husband or their house. Swanton was more concerned that nothing was happening to Syed, no matter how many times people on the street called the police. 

Compared to others affected by Syed’s scams, though, he got off lucky. In January of 2019, four months after Syed had moved in, the landlord’s son-in-law successfully evicted him. Within a couple of weeks, the only evidence he’d ever been there were dirty mattresses piled on the front lawn. While Swanton and the rest of the street cheered, Syed was hardly bothered; he’d already moved on to his next mark: the house on Brookshire Circle.

For John Davies and Li Guo, the miseries inflicted by Syed quickly mounted. Not long after Davies discovered their tenant’s rooming house scheme, Syed stopped paying them rent. They weren’t the only owners he shortchanged. By August of 2020, he collectively owed $123,030 to landlords of a dozen properties. Bank statements, meanwhile, show he was regularly depositing monthly sums upwards of $81,000 in one account, and $35,000 in another. His lifestyle certainly wasn’t one of somebody in a financial jam. By the time he moved on from the house across from Swanton, he’d traded in his Corvette for a silver Lamborghini, which he leased for $5,123 a month and emblazoned with custom plates reading “Jayman.” 

It took Davies five months, until March of 2020, to get his case before the Ontario Landlord and Tenant Board. After three hours of listening to other cases, his proceeding started—and was over, as he puts it, “before we had a chance to say boo to a goose.” The member set to hear the matter briefly opened the file, then dismissed it on a technicality: Davies had delivered his eviction notice by email, rather than in person as required. He was devastated.

Determined to try again, he hired a paralegal to do the paperwork and, later that year, went back before the tribunal. Again, Davies presented photographs showing the state of his house. He had letters from the fire department confirming that the changes to the Brookshire Circle property violated safety regulations, and from the municipality affirming that rooming houses weren’t allowed in the neighbourhood. But the case was dismissed again; this time the tribunal found the fire department’s letter lacked specifics about fire- and safety-code violations in the house. “At that point, I gave up hope,” says Davies. “I thought, ‘We’ll never win.’ ”

Swanton witnessed clandestine exchanges of what he suspected was money for drugs. Condoms, small foil wrappers and other paraphernalia littered the driveway and grass

Syed was only growing bolder—and his rooming house scheme wilder. Beyond hoodwinking his landlords, he appeared to be duping some prospective tenants. One man who rented space at a Markham home run by Syed told a local newspaper that he’d lasted only a month; if he’d stayed longer, he said, he would be dead. The clean bedroom in Syed’s Kijiji ad looked nothing like the trashed one he found in real life. There were holes in his walls, and blood and bodily fluid stains on the sheets supplied as part of his deal for the furnished room. He had between 15 and 20 roommates at any given time, and mostly avoided them. A 20-year-old tenant of another home, also located in Markham, said: “I think we have enough people to have a party every day.” In March of 2020, a 22-year-old man living in that house was arrested for assaulting another tenant who’d asked to borrow $4. Infuriated, he’d thrown the man to the ground, kicking him in the head and neck. The next day, after being released on bail, he attacked a police officer, nearly beating him to death. (He was charged with aggravated assault but found not criminally responsible due to mental illness.) 

In July, Davies invited Syed’s other landlords and a few city officials to meet in a park around the corner from Brookshire Circle. One horrified neighbour, an ex-judge, suggested that a civil lawsuit sounded like their last option. Davies and the others agreed, and in August of 2020, he and the owners of 11 other properties retained Garfinkle Biderman LLP. As the court date approached, there were more delays—Syed always seemed to be asking for time, at one point alleging the plaintiffs broke into his office, located in one of the houses, and stole evidence. In September of 2020, Justice Mark Edwards finally heard the civil case, more than a year after Syed began renting the home on Brookshire Circle. 

He ruled that only the Landlord and Tenant Board had the jurisdiction to evict Syed from any of the properties. He was, however, able to declare the leases void. He ordered Syed to restore the houses to single-family residences, giving him a week to comply. Two weeks later, Syed asked for the order to be set aside. Edwards didn’t budge, but did extend the comply-by date to October 13. Meanwhile, Syed kept on renting.

By early November, he was back in court, this time to determine whether he was in contempt for not shutting down his rooming houses. Syed admitted only three properties had been emptied of tenants, and another 78 renters remained in the other nine houses. He was given two more weeks to get the rest out. During Syed’s next appearance, for the contempt proceeding, his lawyer, David Marcovitch, said that his client had reduced his roster of tenants to nine people by “working like a dog for 10 days.” Syed opted to testify at that hearing, which was held over Zoom. (To the judge’s dismay, he tried to do so while driving, though he eventually parked.) In his testimony, he kept deflecting blame, while trying to paint himself as a misunderstood victim. He said that he had done what he could to keep the rooming houses in good order, and had barely profited from the scheme. “The fact is,” he said, “I am struggling.”

During cross-examination, Syed proved slippery on questions big and small. When Ronald Birken, the lawyer representing the group of landlords, confronted Syed over a demand that Davies return a $300 key deposit, Syed calmly claimed that he’d asked in a polite text if he could have the money back. When asked why he still hadn’t provided all his bank statements, showing rent deposits, he said he’d been too busy getting tenants out. He also denied raking in as much money as the plaintiffs claimed, complaining that not all tenants paid their rent. 

At one of the houses, he said, the tenants had taken control of the property and had refused to pay him. While he didn’t dispute the houses were damaged during his scam—“you have the pictures”—he denied it was his fault, saying the occupants had caused the damage. 

At one house, somebody had blocked the bathroom tup and sink and left the water running; the entire ceiling underneath the floor collapsed

To buttress his claim that he didn’t get rich from the operation, Syed said most of his expenses were paid not by his scam but by his wife, through money she received from Bangladesh. “I accepted my mistake,” he told the court. “I apologized for what I did, and I’m doing the best that I can.” Marcovitch told the court that Syed was no longer disrespectful or brazen—that he had learned his lesson. If police responding to calls to the properties couldn’t control the tenants, the lawyer asked, how could Syed, just one man, be expected to do more? 

In his decision in December of 2020, Edwards wrote that Syed’s claim that he is struggling did not line up with inescapable mathematics: if the rooming houses were still operating, Syed was still making money. Davies and the other landlords, he added, would not be dealing with trashed houses and multiple mystery tenants if Syed had been honest with them from day one. Instead, the judge noted, he had consistently lied—to owners about who he was and why he wanted to rent the homes; and to prospective tenants, the landlords and the court about the state of those homes. And he had lied to everyone about how lucrative his whole operation was. 

Still, Edwards stopped short of sending Syed to jail, so long as he paid a restitution of $36,000. The money was to be divided among the plaintiffs within 10 days of the decision. Davies received his small share on time: just $3,000. The court had intended the money to go toward fixing the immense damage done to all the houses. Instead, it went to the plaintiffs’ legal counsel, covering a fraction of their estimated $100,000 bill. “We didn’t see a penny of that money,” says Davies. 

***

That month, Davies finally got the house on Brookshire Circle back. It was a bittersweet victory. While many of the tenants he’d met back in November of 2019 had been pleasant, those occupants had left once they realized Syed was running an illegal venture. Conditions had worsened over the course of Davies’ 13-month battle. When he did an inspection of the house in late November, he learned that one tenant, a 27-year-old man, had viciously stabbed another, sending the victim to hospital with serious but non-life-threatening injuries. The assailant then locked himself and his tiny dog in his room, the primary bedroom, and refused to let police in. Police surrounded the house for hours before arresting the man and seizing a knife. Later, after the last rooming house tenant had been evicted, Davies found the stabbing suspect had knocked a huge hole in the wall so his dog could move freely between rooms. 

No part of the house had been spared. Someone had ripped the vent pipe from the hot water system out of the wall. The stove in the basement kitchen was broken beyond repair. Door frames were bent, liquor bottles lined the mantel, and windows were either shattered or papered over with cardboard. A large wooden dining room table, which Davies had restored himself, had disappeared along with some chairs. (Davies also found appliances and furniture stolen from the other houses stuffed in his garage.) Garbage littered the floors, and the house reeked. In one room, someone had scrawled the words “PAY ME” across the wall. 

All told, the damage was estimated at $170,000. Davies didn’t have the money left to hire a contractor, so he fixed most of it himself, enlisting friends for the bigger tasks. Other landlords found their houses in even worse shape. In one, somebody had stopped up the tub and sink drains in an upper-floor bathroom and left the water running; the ceiling of the room below had collapsed. Discarded needles mingled with piles of trash, and dresser drawers filled with marijuana were strewn haphazardly on the floor. The house’s washer and dryer were missing, and Syed had left $2,000 in unpaid water bills. “To be honest, we cannot afford this mentally, financially, physically,” the landlord told the court. “This is out of control.”

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Syed’s so-called lesson didn’t stick. In 2021, police received reports that he was running three more rooming house scams in Richmond Hill and Vaughan. In March of that year, a man helping his family friend rent out her four-bedroom Richmond Hill home fell into the same trap as Davies, choosing a seemingly above-board tenant who provided the standard credit report, references and pay stubs. Of course, it was Syed, allegedly using phony background information. The owner later claimed that Syed had divided the house into eight units, seven of which he’d rented out. When the landlord reported Syed to police, he learned that his tenant was already facing 17 fraud-related criminal charges related to rooming house operations. Twelve more counts were laid in October of 2021, and Syed was arrested. It wasn’t enough to get him immediately evicted, or to stop him. That month, he still had the last vacant room of the Richmond Hill house listed on Kijiji for $975 per month, advertising the usual “no last month.” He may have been risking jail, but he still had money to make. And, thanks to COVID, prospective tenants were more desperate than ever.

At least a few landlords have managed to boot Syed. In May of 2021, he was evicted from a home after he was caught running his usual scam: the Landlord and Tenant Board didn’t buy his testimony that he actually lived in the house, that his tenants were his roommates, that he needed two houses because, as he put it, he had “so much going on.” The following month, he was caught once more, at a different house, and evicted. 

In late April of this year, Syed was still facing 31 fraud-related criminal charges related to his rooming house operations and more than 30 curbsiding-related charges from OMVIC. Both sets of offences come with potential jail time. I tried to reach Syed for an interview through his lawyer but was refused. In a short email, Marcovitch declined to comment on any of the allegations before the courts but did say: “We expect Mr. Syed to be fully exonerated.” Meanwhile, a defiant Syed has told local media that he never lied and doesn’t have any fraudulent documents. He has promised to present evidence at his trial that will clear his name. Everyone else has it wrong. They always do.


This article appears in print in the July 2022 issue of Maclean’s magazine. Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here, or buy the issue online here

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