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Apartment complex turned around

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

The gang graffiti was spreading unchecked, just like the rise in violent crimes and the freely flowing traffic of drug dealers.

With only about 200 of the 699 apartments occupied, most of the complex was vacant. Most people had moved away. The banks were threatening to foreclose. The place was falling down and dominated by crime.

"Basically, we were losing the war," said Ed Romano, vice president of the company that manages the property. "No one would go outside at night, and if we had to, we'd go in teams. We believed the property was going to be taken over by drug dealers and gangs."

That was almost two years ago. Today, Jackson's Landing Apartments on Riverdale Road just south of Interstate 285, is different. Where occupancy was once at about 30 percent, it's now at around 70 percent and, rather than fleeing from the complex, residents are actually referring their friends and family to the leasing office.

Today, Jackson's Landing Apartment Homes has three to five resident referrals every week, 150 prospective renters applying every month. "Most people would call that a miracle," said Romano, vice president of First Communities Management Inc.

The change, according to the people managing the property, can be credited to the owners' commitment, the work of the Clayton County Police Department's off-duty officers, and the residents' positive response.

In 2006, with rental rates disastrously low and a foreclosure fast approaching, the apartment complex was bought by HSA&D, a Texas real estate firm. The company began pouring money into the place, eventually investing about $3.5 million to refurbish the complex.

"We bought hundreds and hundreds of carpets, cabinets and counter tops," Romano said. "It took about a year to turn it around, but even after the renovation, we had to make a commitment to do something about the crime."

That commitment came in the form of Capt. Rick Webster and a team of off-duty Clayton County Police Officers, hired through a private security firm.

In July 2007, the uniformed officers began providing security at Jackson's Landing Apartments. Romano said there were some fears that the security would scare off the residents, but a look at the crime statistics provided by the captain convinced everyone that the uniformed police presence was necessary.

The challenge, Webster said, was convincing embattled residents that the police were there to help, not harass, and that police and residents should be working together.

"There's a fine line, sometimes, between enforcement and having a relationship with people," Webster said. "What we did was, we started making physical contact. We made some buddies. It didn't take long."

Looking at monthly crime statistics, provided by the police, the owners saw crime rates jump up, at first, as a result of the additional presence. But then, Romano said, the numbers went down. By the fall, violent crime was decreasing, and by this spring, it was down dramatically.

"I'm not saying it's crime free," said Romano, "but we're down to the routine things ... because the officers proved to be trustworthy. They're not just visible, they're approachable."

Jeff Turner, chief of the county police, said that the officers' off-duty work at the apartment complex is an example of successful community policing.

"This is a great example of how, once a community takes ownership and partners with law enforcement, that area can be cleaned up and crime can be reduced. This is a great example of what the [Community Oriented Policing] program is all about," said Turner, who has been implementing the ownership and partnership philosophy of fighting crime since he was appointed chief in 2007.

It's not clear whether the owners and managers know anything about law enforcement theories, but Webster said the officers were given "100 percent full support" and the combination appears to have been a success.

According to Webster, the department's statistics show crime is down and according to Ramano, the apartment's statistics show residents believe the place is safe, friendly and livable.

Enza Guyette, Jackson's Landing Apartment Homes property manager, said she knew the place had really changed when she saw the police officers playing football with kids from the apartments.

"It wasn't like that a year ago," Romano explained, "it wasn't anywhere close."