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Big Build-Up

Not long ago, Sequina Moore hated showing apartments at the Pleasant Village apartment complex.

The place was in bad shape. Drugs were dealt in plain sight, right in front of the management office where she worked. And usually, when she showed a new apartment, she had to step over people sitting in the breezeways or on the stairs who were drinking liquor, smoking crack or lounging about. Some office staff were afraid to stay past dark. It was one of the worst apartment complexes in southern Dallas.

Often, tenants would say, "This is the 'hood, this is Section 8, so who cares?" And they treated their apartments accordingly. Windows were boarded up, ceilings were caving in, toilet bowls were rusting—there was even mold growing on some walls. It seemed there was no pride in the place.


low-income housing

"Sometimes, I would take people into a new apartment that had just been cleaned and I would think, 'You've got to be kidding me,'" Moore recalls. "The carpet was torn up, the walls were so stained you couldn't even cover it up with three coats of paint. It was horrible."

Today things are different at Pleasant Village, which is located at 378 N. Jim Miller Road. That's because for the last two years a Portland, Oregon-based property management company called Guardian has been pouring millions of dollars into the 200-unit complex and a sister complex down the road called Grove Village.

To some, the effort would seem a lost cause. For years, both complexes have been plagued with all sorts of crimes, from illegal drug distribution to prostitution.

But Guardian management says they're convinced they can turn the place around and turn a profit. They are one of a growing number of companies across the country that are partnering with the federal government to build or rehabilitate low-income housing. It is one way the private sector is teaming up with government agencies to tackle poverty, as well as the federal government's latest effort to encourage private developers to build low-income housing.

To date, Guardian has spent $6.6 million on Pleasant Village and another $7.5 million on Grove Village. When all is said and done, the company will spend $21 million combined on the two complexes. The bulk of that money has come from low-income housing tax credits and tax-exempt bonds Guardian has sold to investors. But finding investors who believed in the project was difficult.

"People didn't think we could turn the place around," says J. Daniel Steffey, Guardian's vice president of development. "They didn't see much upside, and they would be on the hook if things didn't work out."

Guardian had renovated low-income housing before, but never anything this big or in this bad of shape. At first, Steffey says, Guardian execs wondered if they had bitten off more than they could chew.

When renovations first began, thieves would break into apartment complexes as soon as crews left, making off with electrical wiring and copper plumbing. The security companies they hired were proving to be ineffectual.

"They were afraid," Steffey says. "They would just turn the other way."

Finally, on the third try, Guardian found a firm willing to do its job, and things began to change. Knowing they had a security crew they could count on, on-site Guardian management began enforcing rules. They established an 11 p.m. curfew and other rules designed to improve safety at the apartments and quality of life. Noise complaints, for example, were quickly addressed, and if residents failed to comply with rules, such as curfew, they would be given up to three warnings and then they would be kicked out.

At Grove Village alone, Guardian spent more than $5 million on renovations, completely redoing the interior and exterior of every apartment. They also built a playground, which the complex had never had before, and refurbished a community center at the Pleasant Village office, furnishing it with a large-screen television that residents could watch movies on and computers they could use to find jobs or do homework.

Guardian also reached out to local organizations to bring activities to both communities. In June, they hosted a job fair with more than a dozen employers, including the Dallas Police Department, McDonald's and Home Depot. Later that month, they sponsored a Teen Summit that included presentations from local community colleges on the importance of education. And that spring and summer they also put on a number of activities for children at both complexes, including an Easter egg hunt, a Cinco de Mayo celebration and a crafts fair sponsored by Kids Depot.

There is much work left to be done. At Pleasant Village, more than half the apartments are still under renovation and security remains a concern. Parents say they still rarely let their children play outside, and on one recent afternoon, a number of tenants were seen loitering in breezeways and on stairs, even though this is against the new apartment rules.

But residents at both complexes say the changes are working.

"There are some people who don't like the new rules," says Linda Lewis, who has lived at Grove Village since 2001. "They don't want things to change, but most people do, and it's getting better."

One reason for that, portfolio manager Roxana Hammock says, is that Guardian has instituted a more rigorous screening program for potential tenants. Previous criminal background checks were cursory at best, but they now go back 10 years. And where there was no security on the premises before, there is now security from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.

"I think it took a while for people to realize we were serious about rules," Hammock says. "But now that they do, things are getting better."

Sonja Dawson, who has lived at Pleasant Village since 2000, says she still can't believe anyone would want to invest so much in her community. She says it has given her a sense of pride, and that's something she has seen in her neighbors.

"It makes me feel special, just like I was living in Highland Park," she says. "And now people take better care of the place."

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While it may be low-income housing, Guardian thinks it has the potential to become a very profitable project. Because the apartments are subsidized by the government, vacancies shouldn't be a problem (there are usually waiting lists for low-income housing), nor should tenants not paying rent.

For Guardian, the project may be about money in the end, but Steffey says the most rewarding thing is to see how much the changes in the community have improved tenants' lives.

"We really believe in what we're doing too, not just on a business level, but also on a philosophical and a spiritual level," he says. "Communities can't function without housing for its workforce, and there really is a shortage of safe, affordable housing for the low-income segment of our population."

"If you give someone a place that's safe and affordable, and they don't have to worry about paying most of their paycheck to rent, and they have money for food and medical needs, you are making a huge difference in their lives, and that affects the community as a whole."

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