News & Politics

Covid Heroes: An Intern Housing Company Is Placing Nurses in Free Rowhouses

With a mass-exodus of interns, WISH saw a way to help hospital staff fighting Covid-19.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Among the many industries the coronavirus has already decimated, one is a peculiar but vital aspect of Washington’s economy: The intern industry. Each year, tens of thousands of interns migrate to DC, often placed in congressional offices or think tanks. And for decades, thousands of young people have secured their summer housing through a Washington cottage industry of real estate providers—part hostel, part Space Camp, part Junior Statesmen—that place their college-aged clientele across a network of company-owned properties, typically clustered around Capitol Hill.

But the coronavirus changed all that. “We started getting an influx of calls from schools, pulling the students back. Students were leaving,” says Sammie Chapman, a coordinator with the Washington Intern Student Housing company, or WISH, one of the region’s leading housing providers for summer and year-round interns. “We thought we’d do something with it.”

Facing an uptick of available rooms, another company might have filled the furnished and well-located properties through Airbnb.

Instead, WISH had a better idea: offering their surplus lodging to nurses and hospital staff working in ICU wards to fight the coming surge of Covid-19 patients.

“We have anywhere from 100 to 150 bed spaces,” said Chapman, who estimates the company will have about 25 empty units available for “front-line” hospital staff when needed. Chapman and other staffers spent much of the week canvassing their properties to confirm which students are staying, and prepare the avilable units for hospital staff: Says Chapman, “We want to place as many people as possible.”

As the number of Covid-19 cases is expected to rise, hospital staff face an intractable problem: Their own health, and what to do if they should become infected—a problem made more acute if they live with family-members, significant others, or children they may infect. And if hospitals face manpower shortages as ICU staff become compromised, out-of-town hospital staff could find themselves without dedicated living quarters.

A dedicated stock of medical-only housing alleviates some of this problem, says Chapman. Since announcing the availability of the housing units, three major hospital systems have contacted WISH to express interest. The program has also caught the attention of city leaders:

The idea is the handiwork of Jackie Lewis, who founded the company in 1992. Lewis had lately begun to read about the anxieties of hospital staff. “That kind of sparked her interest to help,” says Chapman.

WISH has yet to place any nurses. They’re expecting to finalize the first arrangements this week. The available units are mostly townhouses, says Chapman, with a few apartments for good measure. He encouraged nurses and other staff (who otherwise might be considering an Airbnb) to call him. “We’re accepting now,” he says.

Benjamin Wofford
Staff Writer

Benjamin Wofford is a contributing editor at Washingtonian.