When Reem Qawasmi, an MBA student at Texas A&M University, accepted an unpaid summer offer at TechWadi, a nonprofit entrepreneurship think-tank based in the Stanford Graduate School of Business, she wasn’t prepared for how hard it would be to find a place to live.
“If I can’t find a place close enough to Stanford, it will be really hard to do the work I want to do this summer,” Qawasmi said.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Peninsula Press is a project of the Stanford Journalism Program.)
A combination of little to no pay and increasingly expensive, limited short-term rentals in Silicon Valley and elsewhere has forced student interns like Qawasmi into a dilemma: accept an inadequate housing option or decline a critical professional opportunity.
Qawasmi’s experience mirrors that of college students across the nation looking for housing for short-term professional and academic opportunities away from home. They face a problem beyond finances and long-distance searches: for many students with limited budgets and restricted work timelines, there simply aren’t enough available, accessible and affordable housing options.
In Qawasmi’s case, the Bay Area has a well-documented shortage of housing and rising rental rates that impacts not only long-term residents of the area but also students, interns and employees looking to move to the area for work but are unable to because of such a limited, competitive housing market.
According to Zumper, a website that lists available housing and analyzes rental prices across the country, San Francisco’s rent is the nation’s most expensive — in May 2016, a one-bedroom apartment rented for an average of $3,560 per month. Other major U.S. cities aren’t far behind. A New York one-bedroom averages $3,290 a month. Boston costs an average of $2,290 per month while Washington D.C. is $2,220.
Qawasmi tried to access every outlet at her disposal: SUPost (an online classifieds site), the Stanford University Housing Facebook group, Stanford’s Muslim and business school student email lists, Craigslist and Airbnb. But her search followed a similar narrative to that of many other unpaid summer interns. Housing options were often out of her monthly $1,300 housing budget – a budget coming straight from her own savings – or didn’t fit her timeline, and Stanford-related sites were mostly unresponsive as she is not a Stanford affiliate.
“I’m not picky, but I have limitations,” she said in the spring. “I don’t have a place to stay, and it’s just getting harder and harder to find one.”
Qawasmi managed to visit the Bay Area for a week in early June, but limited funds and a lack of housing options forced her to turn down the employment offer at TechWadi and return home to the Palestinian territories for the summer.
Aside from limited availability, it’s hard to tell if transactions are legitimate and reasonably priced.
Patricia Flores, a sophomore at Stanford, found housing in Maryland for her summer internship, but only after a close call with a Craigslist user who attempted to scam her out of a few thousand dollars.
“He wouldn’t do a Skype tour of the place, and then his contact information kept changing,” Flores said.
“I was so mad that I spent two weeks talking to this guy,” she added.
Some sites such as Airbnb are attempting to combat the scammer problem by requiring users to verify their identities and listings before any financial transactions take place – as well as offering visitors cancellation guarantees if hosts retract the offer before move-in. These sites provide hosts with ballpark pricing estimates based on the house’s location and available amenities, but possibly due to their generous cancellation policies – especially compared to deals made on Craigslist or Facebook, which often have no such guarantees at all – unit pricing on these sites also tend to be slightly higher than average.
Yet even with the added costs, these sites are still considered to be the best way to find temporary housing, as Stanford Junior Patricia Perozo did. Perozo was willing to pay up to $1,500 a month for shared housing in San Francisco — on the low end for the city, but manageable with roommates given that she was interning with a technology firm that would pay far better than nonprofit or unpaid internships. “I’m extremely lucky,” Perozo said. “There’s so many barriers to tech, and so many barriers to learning it, but at least for your internships, I think that’s one of the nice things about the industry — if you’ve reached a certain level on your resume, your company will take care of you.”
This is not the case for other students in other industries. Matthew Baiza, a Stanford sophomore, spent his last summer in Washington, D.C., working an unpaid internship in Congressman Joaquín Castro’s (D-TX) office.
Expensive rental rates in Washington, D.C.’s competitive housing market restricted him to local dorm housing at George Washington University, which forced him to work a shorter internship: eight weeks, instead of the intended ten because of the room’s availability.
The actual living space was also restrictive, and privacy was hard to come by. Baiza’s apartment consisted of a kitchen and communal space, a bathroom, and a single bedroom with two sets of bunk beds, shared between four residents who took care of cooking, cleaning and basic hygiene in the space.
“Don’t even get me started on the cockroaches,” Baiza said. “Every morning, without fail, we’d have to get up and kill some roaches before breakfast.”
Even though it was difficult, Baiza was grateful to have gotten housing in the first place, as his time in Washington D.C. enabled him to make valuable connections within Castro’s office and directly exposed him to the inner workings of Congress, an experience that he couldn’t have gotten without this summer internship. But it all came down to finding and funding housing in a city he’d never lived in. Having secured $2,000 for summer expenses through the Office of the Vice Provost at Stanford, working with Castro became a tangible possibility for Baiza. Otherwise, he would not have been able to work in Washington D.C. at all.
“My experience was very formative on my outlook on politics, but it was contingent on getting housing and funding,” Baiza said. “When you don’t have money for these experiences, it limits the opportunities you can have.”