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Housing Foundation faces new criticism: Misled Harvard summer school

Housing — Hidden fees, incomprehensible contracts, lack of linens, deceit, and a total lack of service: Those are the charges levelled against the UCPH Housing Foundation by the heads of an international literary institute from Harvard University. The Foundation agrees to some compensation.

On July 11 there is a fire in a microwave on the fourth floor of the University Guest House building in the centre of Copenhagen, home to a small group of international student tenants. The fire alarm goes off.

When the firefighters arrive, they can’t get in at first. The key that is supposed to ensure their quick access to the premises is missing from its box on the outside of the building. This causes a delay.

According to the fire report, there is no danger. But afterwards, it is important for Margaret Sessa-Hawkins and Alexandra Effe, the only two fourth floor tenants at this time, to be ensured that the building’s fire safety measures are brought up to scratch.

Sessa-Hawkins and Effe are two of 70 students and researchers who spend part of the summer of 2017 as tenants with the UCPH Housing Foundation which provides housing for  international students and university staff in Copenhagen. They both take part in a summer school organised by Harvard University.

According to Margaret Sessa-Hawkins, no one at the UCPH Housing Foundation answers their own emergency phone number, so she sends them a long email. She describes feeling unsafe because of the faulty fire protection in her building.

»We need immediate assurance that this problem has been fixed,« she writes. She does not get any such assurance.

Sure, you can move, but it will cost you

The UCPH Housing Foundation has had a troubled relationship with tenants in recent years, and its handling of the fire and the missing key is just a catalyst for the most recent debacle. The organisers from the Harvard University summer school claim that the foundation misled them and their participants, charged them unreasonable fees, and they describe the overall service provided by the foundation as pretty much abysmal.

(The) Housing Foundation provides a service and you are free to find a room/apartment without booking it by The Housing Foundation
Student Coordinator, The UCPH Housing Foundation

Apart from the issue of fire safety, Margaret Sessa-Hawkins in her email to the foundation points out that there’s no food served in The University Guest House, even though she has paid in advance to be part of a dinner club, and she complains about what she calls hidden fees from the Housing Foundation. Finally, she writes that the foundation ought to allow tenants with experiences such as hers to move into another of the foundation’s rooms or apartments without paying a moving fee.

Two days pass before the foundation replies that Margaret Sessa-Hawkins will be compensated for the dinner club that turned out to be closed. But it is five days before the Foundation addresses the fire safety issue: A staffer at the guest house, the Foundation writes, will be asked to talk to the ‘security man’ who will in turn ‘update’ and ‘inform’ the fire department, and someone will be asked to check up on the oven. The Foundation adds that Sessa-Hawkins is welcome to move if she wants to, but that it will cost her a fee of DKK 625 (about USD 100):

»(The) Housing Foundation provides a service and you are free to find a room/apartment without booking it by The Housing Foundation.«

According to Margaret Sessa-Hawkins, the fire-damaged microwave was still in its place in the fourth floor kitchenette by the end of July. No-one had, to her knowledge, checked to see what the problem was, or if there might be something wrong with the electrical socket that it was plugged into.

Here come the added fees

The summer school in Copenhagen is arranged by The Institute for World Literature (IWL) of Harvard University, USA. IWL’s director, David Damrosch, is a Harvard Professor of Literature and a Department Head.

IWL chooses different locations for its four week long summer school, and this year The University of Copenhagen and Aarhus University were its hosts, with Copenhagen as the venue for the 130 participants from 34 countries.

Harvard is often ranked as the world’s leading university.

»We have been proud and honoured to host IWL along with Aarhus University,« says Associate Professor Christian Dahl, from the UCPH Department of Arts and Cultural Studies, who has been involved in planning and conducting the summer school.

IWL first contacts The UCPH Housing Foundation in the autumn of 2016. A lot of the summer school participants are students, typically without the money to pay for hotel or Airbnb accommodation in Copenhagen for a month, so the foundation is an obvious choice as it exists to provide short or long term housing for international students and academics as part of The UCPH’s attempt to attract talent from outside Denmark. The foundation offers IWL 70 rentals at between DKK 3,850 and 5,225.

The UCPH Housing Foundation is legally independent of The University of Copenhagen, but its close relation to the university is underscored by the fact that its offices and webpage are on campus, and the Chairman of its Board is Erik Bisgaard Madsen, Assistant Dean at the Faculty of Science.

Professor David Damrosch and IWL’s assistant director, Dr. Delia Ungureanu say that trouble begins when the Housing Foundation begins sending out contracts at the end of May 2017. They contain previously unannounced fees that are not part of the rental contracts themselves but instead are listed in a separate service contract that all tenants are required to sign.

The UCPH Housing Foundation used to have only one contract for both rent and add-ons, but these contracts turned out to be illegal, so the foundation now has a system of different contracts.

No mention of the extra fees is made in the correspondence that The University Post has seen between IWL and the foundation from September 2016. In an email the foundation states that tenants will be charged a DKK 600 booking fee (the fee is the same no matter if you book a stay of a month or spend a semester in Copenhagen), a DKK 450 inspection fee, and a hefty DKK 8,000 (USD 1,250) deposit that will be returned up to eight weeks after the end of the lease.

You need to move out four days early

The IWL is also informed that its participants are required to vacate their rooms four days before the end of their rental period to allow time for inspections and cleaning. That is, the tenants need to be out on July 27 if they have booked their room for the entire month of July. But they have to pay for the four days they don’t get to spend in their rented room or apartment.

But what irked me was the furniture fee. According to my rental contract, the apartment I rented was furnished, so hadn’t I already paid for furniture?

Simão Valente, Assistant Professor, Lissabon

David Damrosch and Delia Ungureanu from IWL call this a strange requirement and say they have yet to experience similar terms from landlords in other countries. In fact, this year’s summer school had to be cut short by one day because of the four day rule, says Delia Ungureanu.

The fees, however, are the major concern:

»They gave us a price in September 2016, but the actual rental contracts were not issued until late May 2017. These contracts turned out to contain fees in the order of about DKK 1,000 (about USD 150) – fees we haden’t encountered anywhere else,« says David Damrosch.

The ‘new’ fees are a DKK 230 furniture fee and a DKK 750 cleaning and inspection fee. The latter fee replaces the original DKK 450 inspection fee.

Simão Valente, Adjunct Assistant Professor at the University of Lisbon call the extra fees »extortionate.«

»The booking fee of DKK 600 seemed a bit extortionate, because I did not expect a university housing service to be a profit making scheme. And the cleaning fee of DKK 750 also seemed a little steep. But what irked me was the furniture fee. According to my rental contract, the apartment I rented was furnished, so hadn’t I already paid for furniture?«

The possible linens swindle

Despite charging DKK 750 to clean and inspect after the IWL summer school participants have left, the Housing Foundation also requires all tenants to thoroughly clean their rooms themselves. This includes tasks like cleaning the oven using a special oven detergent and de-icing and scrubbing the fridge and freezer. These requirements are described in detail in a ‘checklist for pre-departure cleaning’, that the IWL organizers have read on the Foundation’s website.

I have a lot of trouble with being lied to
David Damrosch, Professor

The Housing Foundation informs the IWL that tenants may keep the linens provided after their stay. Linens are a handy service for anyone travelling to Copenhagen for a shorter stay. Also, on the foundation’s website pictures of the various rooms and apartments bed linen is clearly shown, just as bed linens appear on the inventory lists for the foundation’s different houses and dormitories. However, at some point before sending out rental contracts, The UCPH Housing Foundation decides to cancel its linen service, but IWL is not informed of this service cutback.

Portuguese assistant professor Simão Valente finds out about this in early June 2017 when he stumbles upon a message on the foundation’s site. At this time, Valente has been writing back and forth with the foundation about the payment of his stay, because the foundation is unwilling to sign the Portuguese/English payment form that Valente’s university uses. »We are not going to sign a form we don’t understand,« writes the foundation.

On June 7 Valente sends an email to Delia Ungureanu from IWL alerting her to the problem.

»Linen has always been included everywhere I’ve been,« siger Simão Valente. »So I assumed there would be linen, and that I would be told if there wasn’t.«

On June 9 and again on June 12 the Danish summer school organizers ask the Housing Foundation to provide linens for the many people who are due to arrive. They write that there was an agreement about linens, but the foundation denies having made any such deal.

Frankly, I am finding all your correspondence very hostile.

UCPH Housing Foundation Student Coordinator

»There has been no agreement made about bed linen. Can you please direct me to where this agreement was made?« writes a Foundation student coordinator.

She adds that the foundation is too busy to offer linens, and also:

»We are certainly not in a position to make special arrangements, and more importantly, the students have not been charged for bed linen. Like all other international students, they must purchase bed linen at stores.«

Assistant Professor Christian Dahl from UCPH replies on June 12:

»The information on your website clearly indicated that you would provide linen etc.«

The student coordinator answers on June 13:

»Please read the description carefully.« The Coordinator has highlighted a text in boldface on the Housing Foundation webpage that Dahl sent her a link to, it says: »(From April 2017 Housing Foundation do not provide bed linen)[sic].«

The coordinator ends with:

»Frankly, I am finding all your correspondence very hostile.«

But according to David Damrosch and Delia Ungureanu someone in The UCPH Housing Foundation added this text about the changed policy sometime on that very same day, June 13, making it appear as though the IWL are at fault for not being able to understand the terms they have themselves referred to.

They back this charge up with a screendump of the webpage that according to the file information was downloaded early in the morning of June 13.

Damrosch and Ungureanu also show other examples of texts where the tenants are promised linens on the Foundation website. It appears that these pages have also been scrubbed of the linen information on June 13.

»I have a lot of trouble with being lied to,« says David Damrosch.

Søren Peter Hvidegaard Jensen, Director of the UCPH Housing Foundation, denies that the Foundation is guilty of ‘misleading editing’ of its website.

Declining to be interviewed, he has sent The University Post an email stating that linens were indeed included in the rentals until the end of 2016, after which tenants were offered the option to buy them separately until April 1 2017. However, Hvidegaard Jensen does not explain, despite being asked in a follow-up email, why his staffer directed IWL to read information that was apparently added only after they had sent their complaint:

»That linens etc. for a while appeared on inventory lists […] is due to the fact that the lists contained a description of how to handle linens etc. when moving out. Until the Summer [of 2017] there were still tenants who had moved in when linens etc. were part of the rental agreement, and therefore the text was kept [on the website] until mid-June.«

Signing a contract you can’t read

David Damrosch says that he finds it strange that The UCPH Housing Foundation which exists to serve internationals sends out 14-16 page contracts in Danish, a language understood by very few people outside of Denmark. Only a small part of the contract is translated into English.

The cleaning company was already in your room but they can not clean everything because you have a roommate. You have to ask him to clean the things.

Building Inspector

»The Foundation responded to us that they were required by law to write it in Danish, but of course they could provide it in English as well if they wanted to,« says David Damrosch.

The Foundation’s Director Søren Peter Hvidegaard Jensen writes to The University Post that the Foundation website contains links to an English version of the Danish standard A9 contract.

For Giancarlo Tursi, an Italian student, the untranslated contract he received meant that he accidentally signed up for a shared room.

When Tursi contacts the foundation about his predicament, he in informed that his contract is binding, and that the responsibility for the misunderstanding is his own:

»By law, our contracts must be written in Danish, and it’s of course expected that you are familiar with the terms, before signing it,« writes a Student Coordinator.

The information that the room is to be shared only appears in the Danish part of the 16 page contract.

It also appears from Tursi’s communication with the foundation that he arrives at a dirty room, and that the bed collapses when he sits down on it.

»There are dirty dishes hidden in the cupboards, and sneakers and soap in the closet, and various clumps of dirt and hair scattered across the room,« Tursi writes, asking for a clean-up of his room.

But it won’t be as easy as that.

»Hello,« the building inspector replies. »The cleaning company was already in your room but they can not clean everything because you have a roommate. You have to ask him to clean the things.«

Salt in the wound

Apparently, Tursi’s roommate had moved out ahead of schedule, and the cleaning crew wasn’t booked until the middle of the month, when a new roommate is set to move in. The Foundation nevertheless arranges for the room to be cleaned up, while at the same time reminding Tursi that he is at fault:

»This is of course very unfortunate for you, however this does occur when booking a shared room.«

Giancarlo Tursi asks to be relocated to a different room, and the Foundation responds that he can keep an eye on the booking system to see if a vacancy should appear and then arrange to move – after paying the moving fee of 625 DKK.

In an email to The University Post, Tursi describes the Foundation as »not very responsive«.

The customer experience

Professor David Damrosch says that The UCPH Housing Foundation has a »not user-friendly way of doing business,« and that the Foundation seems »very poorly adapted to short-term rentals.«

After being asked by IWL the Foundation’s chairman, Dean Erik Bisgaard Madsen takes a meeting with Damrosch and Ungureanu on July 20.

In an email to The University Post David Damrosch describes the meeting as a success. Erik Bisgaard Madsen agrees to lower the cleaning and inspection fee from DKK 750 t0 450 for the IWL participants and to waive the DKK 230 furniture fee for the 70 tenants. According to Damrosch this is »in recognition of the considerable hassle our people encountered with the unannounced discontinuance of the UCPH providing linens.«

Bisgaard Madsen also agrees to provide translated contracts to future tenants and to compensate Giancarlo Tursi who wound up in a shared room.

In an email to The University Post the Foundation’s Director Søren Peter Hvidegaard Jensen writes that the meeting between IWL and the Foundation resulted in the problems being »fully and finally cleared up to the satisfaction of both IWL and the Foundation.«

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