Nov 29th, 2018, 11:58 PM

Comforts of Home: The Later Years

By Stuart Edwards
The ups and downs of Comforts of Home are smoothing out, but they may have bigger problems at their doorstep.

Mold. Broken beds. Invisible fridges. Almost every student at the American University of Paris is intimately familiar with Comforts of Home (COH). And almost as many seem to be able to tell some sort of horror story they have from living with this housing provider.

Offering accommodations in Paris, Florence, Rome, Madrid, Barcelona and London, Comforts of Home advertises themselves as “Europe’s leading provider of accommodations for study abroad students, interns, and young professionals.” In Paris, the company partners with numerous universities and independent study abroad programs; however, according to the Manager of Partnership with The American University of Paris, Alison Shafer, AUP is COH’s biggest contract, with a yearly average of around 300 students. She reveals that COH “has a pretty international population—majority American—but, it’s pretty diverse,” mirroring AUP’s own cultural makeup.

The partnership began in 2013 after Comforts of Home approached AUP for collaboration. According to Residential Life Assistant Rose Weber, “[AUP administration] realized that we were missing the sense of community and the sense of students being together, and we looked at options to see what was possible. One preferred housing option we looked at was a dorm, but those don’t really exist, except outside of Paris and we know our students want to be in the city. We found COH and they proposed what we wanted—the Parisian experience, but still with a sense of community.”

The beginning of the partnership between AUP and Comforts of Home is notorious for having a rocky start. An article published on the Peacock Plume in 2013, detailed a check-in extravaganza, with uncleaned (or downright unprepared) apartments, disorganized employees from both AUP and COH, miscommunication after miscommunication, and apartment key hand-off delays that lasted hours. For some, the effects were rather far-reaching in terms of basic amenities and quality of life in supposedly fully-equipped apartments. AUP graduate Chelsea Kalumbu, who lived with COH during the 2014-2015 school year, was met with a completely unfurnished kitchen when she arrived at her new college apartment—a kitchen without a stove or a fridge. She shares that she and her roommates were given an oven/stove combination after three days in the apartment, but waited two weeks for a refrigerator to be delivered.

Interestingly enough, “they didn’t give us a reason,” Kalumbu claims. “Honestly, having been freshmen, we weren’t concerned with cooking, but having nowhere to put food we bought in our first two weeks was so annoying.” For their part, COH advertises that “housing is all-inclusive to ensure that your stay will be hassle-free,” and states “fully-outfitted kitchens; all appliances in top shape” on the features breakdown on the COH website.

While no employee who were working for Comforts of Home at the inception of the AUP partnership was available for comment, Shafer offered her take on the issues.

“I think it's a question of—we had just started out, and, like a lot of businesses, you grow and understand what needs to improve. I know there were issues with check-in, keys, appliances—over time, we’ve prioritized doing multiple spot checks prior to arrivals, we use feedback to implement necessary changes for future arrivals, and check-in is a lot smoother. It could be a question of the first year and not knowing what to expect with the students; students are very anxious and excited; now check-in is separated over three days depending on the type of student,” Shafer said.

Comforts, for their part, certainly seems to prioritize growth and change, acknowledging that they don’t do everything perfectly. Shafer continuously emphasized that communication was the cornerstone of their operations and experiences.

“We communicate via email and we want to hear from students—we communicate that from day one of orientation week at AUP, if there’s an issue, we need to hear from them. We can’t read their minds, it might seem great to us on paper, but if they’re not happy and it’s getting worse, they need to let us know so that we can try to fix it. We’ve had walkthroughs, mediation meetings, we have tools to work with the students but we can’t do anything if we don’t hear from them,” Shafe said.

Luckily, not all stories from the first year of the partnership are bad. Graduate Clara Zimmerman reports a relatively satisfying experience with Comforts of Home, saying, “my overall experience with Comforts was actually pretty good! Sure, move-in day and all that was a little chaotic — in the beginning we only had one set of keys for 6 people — but Comforts really did try to help us out with any issues we had! Sometimes it took a little longer but they always send somebody in the end to fix stuff.” She reveals that “sometimes it took a while for them to respond or actually send somebody over to fix things - but in the end, they always took care of things.” Notably, Zimmerman purchased Comforts of Home’s highest tier of apartment, the “superclose” location option that guarantees an apartment in Paris’s 7th arrondissement.

A Comforts of Home apartment as advertised on their website. Photo: Comforts of Home

The subsequent year saw some improvements but still featured some rather interesting hiccups according to many students. Check-in was greatly improved; no student reported a strange or delayed check-in experience, and there were no stories of poorly-equipped kitchens or a dearth of keys. However, it seems that this is the year COH’s maintenance promises were to be put to the test. Comforts advertises “24/7 online maintenance reports; 24-hour response (in business days), and most issues fixed within 48 hours (in business days).” Many, many students report experiences rather different from what is advertised. 2015-2016 USC partner student Brannen Haderle revealed that “We filed several maintenance requests that we would receive a response to in three or four days claiming that the issue had been resolved, but it hadn’t. What we needed fixed simply wasn’t fixed.” He speaks of a showerhead mount that was incredibly loose, necessitating the use of the handheld feature. Haderle and his roommates only managed to “fix” the problem with some superglue and a prayer.

This same year, now-graduate Francesca Coyne experienced a proper fiasco with several apartments. After a series of abrupt relocations, first due to a report of mold, and then due to no discernible reason at all, Coyne ended up in an apartment (her third of the year) in which her and her roommates suddenly developed nasty hives. According to Coyne, an email to Comforts of Home went unanswered until her mother intervened, which immediately resulted in an email from Comforts about a planned fumigation that day. Said fumigation allegedly did not fix the issue, after which Comforts offered to fumigate again–for 300 euros. According to Coyne, Comforts indirectly claimed that the bedbugs were her and her roommates’ fault, and that students the prior semester had not reported a problem; however, Coyne was told by another Comforts representative that they did not know who had lived in that apartment the prior semester—or if anyone had in the first place.

Comforts seemed to have several grave problems with lack of communication during this period. Now-4th-year Rachael Creger came home one day to discover that her “apartment was apparently being fumigated, which Comforts neglected to tell me," she explained. "I found this out when my smoke alarm was going off for seemingly no reason, irritating my neighbours and causing my gardienne to come into my apartment to figure out what was wrong—but not before calling the firemen.”

Of course, there are students from this period, too, that were satisfied with Comforts of Home. 4th year Joan Jessiman (2015-2016 school year) had a generally positive opinion of her time living with Comforts of Home, saying “we had no problems with them; it was definitely very helpful to be established in the city so quickly, we liked our apartment, and they helped us with any issues we had pretty quickly.” Her only problem, which she didn't assign much weight to, was when she discovered that she was going to have seven housemates, instead of the three that she had assumed from contact with Comforts.

“Three other girls and I emailed Comforts saying that we were hoping to live with each other, they approved it, and we thought that was the end of it. We were surprised to get an email a few weeks later to introduce a total of eight girls to each other as roommates. We didn't even realize that that was a possibility,” Jessiman said.

AUP itself advertises Comforts as featuring “shared housing in two-to-three bedroom apartments” on its website and Shafer needed to be corrected when questioned about this, initially saying, “we don’t have five [to] six bedroom apartments.” She expanded by saying “oh, we do have some exceptions. Our largest apartments accommodate six to eight students, but they are definitely the exception. By and large, most of our apartments have 2 to 3 bedrooms. That’s probably why AUP advertises that, because it’s the standard configuration.”

A current AUP student's Comforts of Home apartment. Photo: Lucy Ewert

After a less-than-perfect few years, Comforts appears to have improved—primarily, many fewer students responded to requests for comment. Perhaps this is due to strong staff turnover; Shafer revealed that “Most of our [current] team is relatively new, over the last 2-3 years, some people have been here for a while, but there are some that trained with old employees.” However, more recent years were not without incident. Sophomore Alizée Chaudey, who lived with Comforts for the 2017-2018 school year, reported a harrowing experience that included Comforts’ alleged 24/7 emergency intervention policy.

Chaudey and her roommates came home one day during fall break to a trashed apartment (“Everything on the floor, broken, door exploded”) and immediately contacted Comforts of Home. She claims that they arrived five hours later, and that she and her roommates therefore had to contact the police themselves, find out themselves that they were required to go to the police station and issue a report to submit to insurance, and that—perhaps most disturbing—they were locked out of their home for six hours the next day “because COH refused to change our door, saying that it was working perfectly, while the door was f****d and wouldn't open anymore,”

When Shafer was asked for general comment on their emergency response services, she said, “safety is important; that’s why we have an emergency line. Our turnover would be immediate, no matter what time of night, we’ll wait with the police, sometimes we’ll relocate students if they don’t feel safe, and we’ll go to the police station with students the next day to help students file the police report. It depends on the issue though; for a break-in, we’ll go immediately.” She was unsure why a disconnect like that reported by Chaudey would occur. 

Luckily, the current 2018-2019 school year seems to be a much more successful year for Comforts; no harrowing stories were revealed to Plume, and it seems the general animosity towards Comforts that was almost palpable several years ago has all but disappeared, remaining only in the memories of AUP’s oldest students. Current resident and University of California Trojan Transfer Program student Graham Kosich attested that, “I feel like I lucked out with my apartment ... I think Comforts is really great with their assistance. They usually help out right away when any of us have a problem.” However, a lot of stuff was broken when we arrived”—another test for Comfort’s maintenance program. The Comforts allegedly responded to a request to fix “Cracked walls, broken cabinets and broken shower handles” within a day, and came to fix all issues a week after the request was submitted. Kosich said it was a “really easy process,” and suggested that it seemed his peers were having similar experiences, a far cry from several years ago, where many students were very familiar with not only their own issues, but those of fellow students. Lucy Ewert, a 3rd-year visiting student from University of Denver living with Comforts of Home, echoed Kosich’s sentiment, saying “its been pretty easy, everything has worked how they said it would, like the appliances and whatnot, and the apartment is cozy enough!”

Comfort's of Home's contact page, the only method to reach them as a non-tenant.

Weber made a rather legitimate point in terms of gauging student response throughout the years.

“The problem with assessing all of this is that a student who didn't have a good experience we will hear from, but if they have a good experience, we usually don’t know about it…they won’t fill out a survey, etc,” Weber said. She then revealed that, “at the end of the year we make a list and see what apartments we had issues with, and we find that the percentage is usually rather low. Out of 410 students with COH, I’d say there are max 50 students that wave seen that have issues with the services, or with the situation itself,” roughly a tenth of all housed students.

Comfort’s of Home’s tenancy contracts are relatively standard both for apartment rental and student hosing situations—student’s sign both a form resembling a traditional rental agreement and a tenancy agreement more akin to something given at American-style dorms. However, there is one point in the latter that may those familiar with the difficulty of tenant eviction in France some pause: the threat of eviction in “five business days” if a student is found in violation of points in their agreement (such as excessive noise complaints, drug use, or smoking in the apartment.) Attorney Jean Taquet lays out the rights of the renter (one of the most central concepts in French tenancy law) and events in which eviction can occur, saying “The ownership of the place gives the right to expel the renter but it will take some years to do it; the average is over 2 years. The reason is that the renter has the right to a domicile. The procedure goes as follows: 2 full months without payment must go by before the landlord can prove that the renter is not paying. Only the proof by final notice by registered mail or “un commandment d’huissier” can be used in a court of law. Most of the time both are done in that order.” He says this takes an average of four to five months. Next, it is required “that the “Préfet” be informed of the intention of filing in court to expel the tenant” so that “civil servants can work on finding solutions that would not involve an expulsion. This takes about two to four months.” Next, a lawyer is hired, “and the first hearing occurs about nine months later.”

He reveals that, in the case of eviction, “a locksmith, a “huissier” and a police officer must be present with the authorization of the “Préfet”. Because of unemployment and financial hardship in some parts of the country, this authorization is far from being automatic even with the previous attempt having failed. A family with many children, a promising artist, an old woman living alone can get lenient treatment. Therefore, very often the first request is denied.”

Taquet revealed that this, “all depends on whether its technically a primary or secondary residence. If it’s a primary residence, you are afforded tenant protections and they must go through the court system.” Interestingly, he shared that, “a lot of housing companies go out of their ways to make sure a contract is worded so that it’s a secondary, not primary residence.” He stressed that “If it’s a primary residence, an eviction has to go through a process to protect the rights of the tenant.” When asked if Comfort’s eviction policy and internal judgment was legal in the case of their residences being registered as primary residences, he responded simply, that it was “Completely illegal. Absolutely illegal.” It is also notable that Comforts of Home does not inform students of the French “winter treaty” in their contracts in which eviction is completely illegal in any circumstances between 1 November and 31 March. A representative from Comforts of Home that gave only the name "Charlotte" claimed that their contracts define the apartments to be the primary residences of the students. 

When asked if Comforts would follow the winter treaty, Shafer responded, cryptically, “I don't know how it works in terms of the legality of the student’s actions.” She stressed that they “review the communications and our policies with our lawyers, to make sure our practices are legal; if we were in a situation where we needed to evict a student, we would confer with our lawyer.” Weber echoed that they confer with a lawyer about all situations and policies, and said that they had never had any legal issues that she recalls.

It certainly seems as if Comforts of Home has improved on their prior reputation and, above all, is very growth-focused in acknowledging their past problems. Shafer commented generally that, "there are always challenges. Challenges from one year to the next are not the same, whether its maintenance, student behaviors, etc, and unfortunately we can't foresee these, but we try to learn based on our past experiences and how we handle them. This can apply to any issue, and we have more and more experiences in the past so know how to handle things, and if we can do anything differently. We want students to be happy in their apartments, both with their roommates and in the apartment itself."