Underpaid and Barely Housed
By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 16, 2006; B01
In the life of a Washington intern, there are a couple of things one can count on: long days of work for little or no pay and late nights swilling pints of Yuengling with members of the opposite political party. In between, when it's time to recharge and put on a new button-down shirt, things get less predictable.
For the 15,000 to 20,000 interns who compete for housing in one of the tightest rental markets in decades, finding a decent place to live could be the biggest gamble of the summer.
Some interns come with fingers crossed and a hotel reservation or the promise of a cousin's couch as they brave the temporary housing market. Others line up a room in advance, hoping for the best and possibly paying the most for cramped apartments that go for three times the market rates.
Many are still out there searching, growing more desperate by the day -- their calves sore and maps crumpled, eyes squinting into dim windows of what they hope could be their perfect summer sublet, or at least something clean that won't absorb every last cent of their student loans.
Local universities ease the crunch by freeing up more than 5,000 dormitory beds in the summer, and some employers try to find housing for their short-term recruits. But the rest of the interns duke it out for rentals. The vacancy rate for apartments is 2.3 percent. That's down from 3.1 percent two years ago and among the lowest rates since World War II, said Gregory H. Leisch, chief executive of Delta Associates, an apartment research firm in Alexandria. That means interns must rely mostly on whatever spare basements or shared houses are available to sublet.
Leisch said the squeeze is tightest in neighborhoods such as Georgetown, Capitol Hill and Foggy Bottom, where interns flock to be close to work, university classes or favorite bars.
"Getting the internship was easy," said Heather Kinlaw, a 28-year-old graduate student in public policy at the University of California at Berkeley working with the Fannie Mae Foundation to research education policies. "Finding the sublet is mission impossible."
During the first weeks of her internship, Kinlaw refreshed her Internet browser every 20 minutes, checking the "sublets / temporary" section of Craigslist.org, a Web site for free classified advertisements. If any new listings cropped up, she pounced on them, firing off an e-mail with the subject heading: "GREAT grad student roommate for your place!!!" She responded to as many as 14 ads in one day.
"I'm a maniac," she said.
If someone e-mails back and agrees to arrange a visit -- something that happens about 10 percent of the time -- the rooms rarely match their online descriptions, Kinlaw said. More often than not, " 'furnished' means air mattress," she said, and "close to Dupont Circle" could mean a 20-minute walk and a steep hill away.
The result of her prolonged search has been a sharp decline in expectations: She had hoped for a "cute place" in Dupont Circle but came to set her sights on "a bed and a toilet" many Metro stops away. And her budget, once a firm $1,000 a month to accommodate her $3,000 a month gross salary, kept getting higher: She recently visited a basement in Woodley Park going for $1,750. "It's crazy," she said.
Later this month, her boyfriend, also a student at UC-Berkeley, will arrive to begin an internship researching trade policy at the State Department. Kinlaw set a goal of having a place by then, so they could move in together.
To sidestep this stressful process, many interns opt for a placement service, in which they pay a premium for the convenience of having an apartment waiting.
Washington Intern Student Housing (WISH) has located furnished apartments near Capitol Hill this summer for more than 400 interns, who pay monthly rents of $850 to $1,250 a person.
Most of WISH's clients work on the Hill, where more than 4,000 interns (many unpaid) have begun work so far this summer.
On June 1, WISH's cramped housing office near Union Station was visited by about 25 students from Raleigh, N.C., Boise, Idaho, and Miami headed to temporary jobs at the Department of Homeland Security, the Smithsonian, or the White House -- which has 100 interns, none of them paid.
Kira Peikoff, a 21-year-old journalism major at New York University, arrived to check in about 3 p.m., three suitcases in tow. Anxious to get settled in time for her first day of work at the Washington bureau of a California newspaper, she picked up her keys, signed an agreement forbidding alcohol and overnight guests, then took a cab to her new summer home near Eastern Market, which she signed up for in February, sight unseen.
When she unlocked the door to the apartment that she would be sharing with three roommates, she was greeted by a blast of hot air, a living room full of mismatched furniture, a closet-sized kitchen and a 7-by-10-foot bedroom containing a small dresser and a single infirmary-style bed.
"For what I'm paying, I thought I would at least have a desk," she said, "and some air conditioning." (The housing office fixed the air conditioning later that night.)
Her rate: $1,250 a month for three months, paid upfront. Her summer salary: $1,640 a month, before taxes. Her father, a retired professor, wrote the rent check.
"None of us have ever been to D.C. really, and we don't know what to do," said her new housemate, Anita Wadhwani, 25, a University of Pittsburgh student who has an unpaid internship at the State Department. Her rent is $850 per month for a triple-occupancy room. Her parents lent her the money, but it wasn't easy for them; her dad is a retired civil engineer and her mom doesn't work, so she got a grant from school that she used to pay them back for most of it.
Now she has just over $1,000 saved for groceries and weekend nights out. Anything extra, such as her temporary gym membership or the blanket she needed for her bed, has gone on her credit card.
According to the most recent regional housing study released by the Urban Institute, the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the District in December 2004 was $1,218. With four renters, Wadhwani and Peikoff's two-bedroom apartment-turned-hostel will bring in $3,800.
Dan Lewis, general manager for WISH, said the company set its rates to be lower than those at extended-stay hotels and to be competitive with local universities' dormitories.
George Washington University charges $203 to $283 a month a person for rooms, most of which are shared by as many as four. The school expects 3,500 interns will stay this summer. American University anticipates as many as 600 interns, Catholic University has almost 300, and Georgetown University has reached capacity with 642 interns. Rents at the three schools are similar to that at GWU.
To Valerie Koss, 23, the cost seemed high for a shared room and an extension of her undergraduate experience, so she ruled out dormitories. The public policy graduate student at Pepperdine University has an unpaid internship with the Republican Youth Majority and started searching for sublets online at Apartments.com, Craigslist.org, and Sublet.com two weeks before she left California. She had not found anything when she arrived in Washington on May 23.
"I came in on a red-eye flight on Tuesday and started [work] at 8 a.m. on Wednesday morning. By Wednesday night, I was out there pounding the pavement" looking for an apartment, she said.
Overall, she estimates that she responded to more than 70 online ads -- looking as far out of the city as College Park. Sublets were "flying at the speed of light," she said. She finally found a room in a house in Tenleytown for $900 a month, plus about $50 more for utilities, for which she will pay with student loans. "But I have my own bathroom," she said.
More recently, Kinlaw got lucky as well. On June 7, she signed a lease for a furnished room in Mount Pleasant, where she talked the landlord down from $1,000 a month to $800. She moved in on Tuesday, nearly a week before her boyfriend is to arrive.
"I'm going to make his life easy," she said. "He owes me huge."
Correction to This Article
A June 16 Metro article about housing for summer interns misstated the cost of renting a room in a George Washington University dormitory. The rents range from $203 to $283 per week, not per month.