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.

Underpaid and Barely Housed

Intern Kira Peikoff found temporary housing through a placement service. Her $1,250-a-month room is about 7 feet by 10 feet.
Intern Kira Peikoff found temporary housing through a placement service. Her $1,250-a-month room is about 7 feet by 10 feet. (By Michael Robinson Chavez -- The Washington Post)
By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 16, 2006

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, 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.

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