MOSCOW, Idaho - Rainwater drips from the ceiling onto a bed. In the basement, a heavy shelf loaded with suitcases blocks an exterior door with a broken lock. A shining silver tea set in a display case presides over the dining room, with its 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 - just a few more weeks, in fact. Like many university-run cooperative living halls throughout the United States, Steel House is in danger of shutting down.
Co-ops provide college students a cheap place to live in exchange for light maintenance, kitchen and janitorial work. Some, 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.
But on many campuses today, co-ops are becoming neglected relics, struggling to find members and money for upkeep. The reasons are varied, said Jim Jones, the 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 new freshman, 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 run-down.
"Before World War II, there were co-ops all over the place," said Jones. "But particularly in the late 1970s, things slowed down a lot."
Some schools are bucking the trend, said Jones. There are about 600 co-op members at the University of Michigan, and the University of California's flagship Berkeley campus has about 1,400 co-op members.
But nineteen women living at the University of Nebraska-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 university's residence director for the hall.
But 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, Rowley said.
Co-ops have been shut down in recent years at Northwestern University and the University of Texas, according to North American Students of Cooperation. Four co-ops at the University of Florida in Gainesville had already been shut down when last year the school tried unsuccessfully to close the Collegiate Living Organization as well, member Victoria Davis said.
The CLO survived when it was able to prove in court that its alumni foundation - not the university - should have control, Davis said.
"Universities feel like they're not important any more," 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."
Davis recently called members of Idaho's 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 the 53-year-old home needed serious maintenance work, costing up to $2 million dollars.
Co-op president Cyndil 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 Markert and the other women living at Steel say they were shocked when the university told them in March that the house would close this June.
"The day before they told us the house was closing, the residential director told us we had the highest retention rates on campus," Markert said.
The university was unwilling to wait for the women to try to raise money for the repairs, insisting the house would be closed this year, she said.
"By taking away any solutions, they take away the university's only low-cost living option," Markert said.
The cooperative - which started in 1933 - costs hundreds of dollars less than living in the dorms. In exchange for the cheaper rate, the residents spend up to 30 minutes every day doing either kitchen or janitorial chores.
Michael Griffel, the director of university residences, insists the school is supportive of the cooperative and the women there. It all comes down to money, he said.
"I believe very strongly in cooperatives in general. This is strictly a facility issue," Griffel said. "It's not in bad shape because it's a co-op, it's in bad shape because it's an old building."
Housing has to be self-supporting, Griffel said, and the rates charged by Steel House would not be able to cover the repairs.
"If we were to put $1 to $2 million into the building, that couldn't be recouped," 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?" 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."