By Daniel Silliman
It doesn't look like government housing and that, according to the Clayton County Housing Authority, is precisely why Premier Garden Apartments is a success.
"The old stereotype is, 'Oh, it's government housing, it's run down,' but this is the exact opposite," said Chris Wood, spokesman for the authority. "This is a direct reflection of the mission of the housing authority: Provide quality housing for low-to mid-level incomes."
Located at 639 Garden Walk Blvd., the 24-building, 423-unit apartment complex has a record occupancy rate, with only 15 vacancies.
Crime has dropped in the complex and residents are reportedly "taking ownership" of their living environment. A recent tour of the apartments shows that the 12 swimming pools are clean, even while other area apartments let leaves collect during the winter cold. The security gate is working, out front, while other apartments' gates have been permanently shoved open. Two security guards roam the grounds, and a maintenance man paints one of the few vacant units. A grounds keeper tags trees for trimming.
It wasn't always this way, though. The complex recently underwent $900,000 worth of construction and rehabilitation, a two-phase, two-year project.
John Azar, of JMA Properties, said that when his company took on the management of the complex, it looked good -- superficially.
"From the outside, it looked good," Azar said, "but on the inside, we found a lot of problems, a lot of deferred maintenance problems."
When it rained, the complex flooded. The drainage system, from the plumbing to the storm drains, from the rain ditches to the retention ponds, needed to be fixed.
A railroad-tie retaining wall along the backside of the apartment had collapsed. Stair and balcony railings were rusted, broken or missing. Sidewalks were cracked, laundry rooms were vandalized, and the complex had a bad reputation.
When Azar and property manager Ken Fekete presented the problems to the housing authority board, and explained that repairs would be extensive, they were impressed by the board's response. The housing authority authorized the repairs, embracing the long-term vision and swallowing the short-term costs.
"Housing stock is getting older," said Wood, pointing out that the Garden Walk Boulevard complex was built in the mid-1980s. "We have to be focused on rehabilitation. It was a rehabilitation project. It was a mighty big one ... but the big picture is, you don't want to have blighted homes in your community."
The rehabilitation started with a name change -- with residents competing for a $100 award to come up with a new name -- and continued with exterior, infrastructure repairs and interior refurbishing.
The rehabilitation included changing the environment and growing increasingly selective with new tenants.
"We let unsavory-type characters know that they weren't welcome, anymore," Azar said. "I think we cleaned out most of the trash, and we've got good tenants now. We can afford to be particular, and in the long run, we have to be."
Tina Lewis, residence manager, said the application process has become tougher, so now, prospective renters go through credit checks, employment checks, income checks and reference checks. The tenants renting the $530 per month, one-bedroom apartments and the $675, two-bedroom apartments have responded, she said, by taking care of the place. Residents regularly report needed repairs and security issues to the main office.
"Now," Fekete said, "it's the tenants taking an active interest. They're taking ownership. They'll report, 'Somebody's cut the fence here.' If you think about it, it's a thousand sets of eyes instead of six sets of eyes."
Most of the residents don't know Premier Garden Apartments is a government-owned property, Lewis said. When showing an apartment, she talks about the amenities -- a pool for every two buildings, a recreation room, tennis courts, laundry rooms -- and the competitive pricing.
She talks about how safe the complex is and how it's close to the interstate. The ownership never comes up, which is exactly how the housing authority wants it, Wood said.
"We're boasting that we have a better apartment than any other apartment on the market," he said. "This is the biggest and most successful rehabilitation project this county has seen."