- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 31, 2007

MOSCOW, Idaho — Rainwater drips from the ceiling onto a bed. In the basement of the 53-year-old house, a heavy shelf loaded with suitcases blocks an exterior door with a broken lock. A shining silver

tea set sits in a display case in a dining room made drab by a stained, worn carpet and teetering chairs. It hardly seems the place for tea.

Still, the 36 women living in the University of Idaho’s only remaining cooperative residence hall say the Ethel Steel House is the only place they want to be.

They won’t be there for long.

Like many university-run cooperative living halls throughout the United States, Steel House is in danger of shutting down. On many campuses, co-ops are becoming neglected relics, struggling to find members and money for upkeep.

The reasons are varied, said Jim Jones, director of asset management for the North American Students of Cooperation, a national organization for cooperative living groups.

Universities have been spending much of their housing money on building new, high-tech dorms designed to lure freshmen, Mr. Jones said. The value of on-campus property at many schools has skyrocketed, making co-ops a tempting option for development. And some co-op buildings, like Steel House, have simply become old and rundown.

“Before World War II, there were co-ops all over the place,” said Mr. Jones. “But particularly in the late 1970s, things slowed down a lot.”

Some schools are bucking the trend. About 600 co-op members reside at the University of Michigan, and the University of California’s flagship Berkeley campus has about 1,400 co-op members.

But 19 women living at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln’s Love Memorial co-op nearly lost their home in 2005 when the university decided it would be “fiscally responsible” to close the half-empty building, said Ethan Rowley, the hall’s residence director.

A sympathetic administration gave the women a reprieve, telling them they needed 34 members to stay open. With the help of alumni and an aggressive recruiting campaign, the co-op is squeaking by with 35 members, Mr. Rowley said.

Co-ops provide college students a cheap place to live in exchange for light maintenance, kitchen and janitorial work. The women of Steel House pay about $5,000 a year for their room and meals — about $1,700 less than they would pay to live and eat in the university’s old cinderblock dorm complex, and about $2,300 less than room and board at the newest dorms, Steel House president Cyndil Markert said.

Some co-ops, like Steel House, were created to provide women with accessible, inexpensive housing during a time when mostly men attended college. The arrangements were made popular during the Great Depression and were revived as hippie status symbols during the late 1960s.

Co-ops have been shut down in recent years at Northwestern University and the University of Texas. Four co-ops at the University of Florida in Gainesville were already shut down last year when the school tried unsuccessfully to close the Collegiate Living Organization co-op as well, member Victoria Davis said.

That co-op survived by proving in court that its alumni foundation — not the university — should have control.

“Universities feel like they’re not important anymore,” Miss Davis said. “They think students aren’t interested in co-ops because students don’t want to work. But we’re an intentional community — we want a cheaper way of living.”

Miss Davis recently called members of Steel House, offering advice on rallying alumni, but she’s not optimistic.

University officials began warning the women at Steel House a few years ago that their home needed serious maintenance work, costing up to $2 million.

Miss Markert agrees that years of duct-tape repairs have taken their toll. Along with an aging boiler, leaky roof, poor plumbing and original cloth wiring, the house needs two more stairwells to comply with fire codes.

But Miss Markert and the other women living at Steel say they were shocked to learn in March that the house would close in June.

“The day before they told us the house was closing, the residential director told us we had the highest retention rates on campus,” Miss Markert said.

The university was unwilling to wait for the women to raise money for the repairs, she said.

“By taking away any solutions, they take away the university’s only low-cost living option,” Miss Markert said.

In exchange for cheaper living, Steel House residents spend up to 30 minutes every day mopping bathroom floors, dusting baseboards or doing dishes after family-style meals. Any heavy-duty janitorial repairs are left to the university.

Michael Griffel, director of university residences, insists that the school is supportive of the cooperative and its residents, but that it all comes down to money.

“I believe very strongly in cooperatives in general. This is strictly a facility issue,” Mr. Griffel said.

Housing has to be self-supporting, Mr. Griffel said, and the rates charged by Steel House are unable to cover the repairs.

“If we were to put $1 million to $2 million into the building, that couldn’t be recouped,” Mr. Griffel said.

For now, the co-op is hoping to move into a vacant, privately owned fraternity house on campus while the women try to raise enough money to re-create Steel House.

“Why are the university co-ops disappearing?” Mr. Jones said. “It isn’t because they’re not popular. They’re just really different than a traditional residence hall, and because they’re such a small part of the university housing system, there’s a tendency to not want to deal with them.”

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