When Atlanta-based Columbia Residential won an RFP to renovate the Martin Luther King Village Apartments, the property was one step away from being condemned. Unfortunately, that step was literally taken by a resident on one of the building's service stairwells, which collapsed and necessitated a complete evacuation of the building. “It was an absolute disaster,” recalls Columbia president Noel Khalil. “The property was in a terrible sate of disrepair and social blight.”

Fortunately, Columbia was able to relocate all residents to nearby temporary housing and launch a renovation that saw budgeted expenditures jump from $50,000 to $92,000 per unit. “We had to scramble for extra funds, but we were not going to compromise on quality,” Khalil says.

With value engineering by Marietta, Ga.-based builder JW Wilkerson and design services provided by Atlanta's Picard Associates, the fully rehabbed and now renamed Columbia Tower houses its original resident base—including a 40 percent chronically homeless/special needs population—but resembles a downtown boutique hotel with floors themed on jazz greats such as Stan Getz and Billie Holiday; a state-of-the-art fitness room; three resident lounges with views of Atlanta; a library; and offices for in-house social services provider Georgia Rehabilitation Outreach.

Columbia contracted JM Wilkerson for the full-scale renovation of the property, which included interior demolition and a rebuild of all 95 existing units. Major building features, including fenestrations, roofing, HVAC, and water heating systems, were completely upgraded. While the original building footprint remained static, additions were made on floors one, two, three, 11, and 12 to make room for a fitness area, amenities centers, administrative offices, and the GRO counseling center.

By providing a product rivaling Atlanta's market-rate sector, Columbia hopes to create a sense of pride, home, and belonging that its resident base can use as an impetus to improve their lives. So far, so good. For a property previously infected with substance abuse and related issues, there have been fewer management issues than at Columbia's market-rate assets. “Right now, we are on cloud nine,” says Columbia vice president of tax-credit development Clara Trejos. “I look at it, and I can't believe how beautiful it turned out.”

Fast Facts Developer: Columbia Residential

Architect: Picard Associated

Builder: JM Wilkerson Construction

Opened: December 2007

No. of Units: 95

Unit Mix: Studio and one-bedroom apartments

Rent: $727

Judge's Verdict “THIS IS A DRAMATIC, OVER-THE-TOP RENOVATION WITH A GREAT SOCIAL MESSAGE AND MISSION TO UPLIFT ITS TARGET AUDIENCE.” —Christina Steeg, senior vice president of marketing and training, Simpson Housing