Broken elevators, collapsing stairwells, rusted-out appliances, and vacant units strewn with old clothing and garbage. That was the filth in which the chronically homeless in Atlanta attempted an about-face on the trajectory of their lives. No longer, thanks to the team at Atlanta-based Columbia Residential, which used a creative blend of tax-credit, grant, and market-rate financing to turn the blighted Martin Luther King Village Apartments into Columbia Tower at MLK Village, a property rivaling its market-rate peers in design, amenities, and resident services. And the centerpiece? Improving the lives of its formerly homeless residents by giving them a sense of pride in their homes.

Still, this didn't mean a smooth ride. “One of the things that was not immediately apparent—but that we quickly learned—is that many of the residents were also special needs people who had a drug or alcohol abuse problem or mental illnesses,” says Columbia president Noel Khalil. As such, Columbia partnered with Georgia Rehabilitation Outreach to offer resident psychosocial rehabilitation services. “It was a key factor to our success—that we differentiated who had the real estate responsibility and who had the social services responsibility,” Khalil says. “To make this community a success, we couldn't simultaneously be involved in the ongoing personal health issues of the residents.”

Although the rehabilitation budget nearly doubled, the project successfully obtained low-income housing tax credits from the Georgia Department of Community Affairs that were used to secure $9 million in equity financing from SunAmerica Affordable Housing. Grants were obtained from the Atlanta Development Authority and the Federal Home Loan Bank in the amounts of $2 million and $500,000, respectively. Additional financing of $1.8 million was secured through Sun-America. Columbia Residential waived the $247,000 development fee it normally would have charged Ezikiel Baptist Church, the property's owner and original issuer of the RFP. Additional, unspecified funding was provided by the United Way to help support the community's 40 percent chronically homeless resident base.

The resulting project boasts boutique hotel-like designs, with bright colors and fabrics, and floors themed after jazz legends such as Stan Getz and Billie Holiday. In addition to a fitness center and rehabilitation services office, the property has three resident lounges designed as “feel good” spaces for residents to interact and socially activate their lives. “Even with the budget restructuring, we were able to finance the property fortuitously so that it is already in positive cash-flow,” Khalil says. “The property is 98 percent occupied, and we have fewer management incidents here than at any of our other properties. It has been amazing.”

Fast Facts Developer: Columbia Residential

Architect: Picard Associates

Builder: JM Wilkerson Construction

Opened: December 2007

No. of Units: 95

Unit Mix: Studio and one-bedroom apartments