In years past, according to the Rev. Walter George, the Bladensburg apartment complex where he lives was good for only three things: drugs, prostitutes and parties.
But that has changed. "When they renovated, I saw that this was going to be an exciting place," said George, 49. The minister and his wife moved to what's now the Autumn Woods apartments five years ago, when the first wave of renovations was completed.
Landex Corp. of Baltimore, which specializes in redeveloping and running low-income apartment communities, in 1999 acquired the 30-acre garden community, once known as Mattapony, and embarked on substantial upgrades. Since then, five buildings have been demolished to reduce density, bringing the number of units down to 484 from more than 700.
The complex won a Housing and Urban Development Department anti-drug grant in 2000 and an Education Department Community Technology Center grant in 2001. At Landex's request, Bladensburg police set up a satellite office in a building across from the mini-mart in the heart of Autumn Woods to increase visibility. In March, the Magic Johnson Foundation donated $80,000 in equipment to the computer center. The center now offers classes and computer access to residents. The management screens applicants carefully. And residents patrol the grounds every Friday and Saturday night with a police officer as part of a neighborhood watch program.
George is the president of that program. Although the battle against crime is still not over, he says he feels safer now and is happy to see an increase in resident participation in the neighborhood watch. Fifteen people attended the last meeting.
The renovations have resulted in other benefits. A sparkling in-ground pool sits behind the leasing office, which also houses a fitness center. Cable is free in all units. There are two playgrounds on the property. HOPE Worldwide, a faith-based charity, runs a Saturday program in an all-purpose activity room on the premises. The organization provides computer training, tutoring and mentoring, arts and crafts classes, sports, self-esteem classes and beauty tips.
There are a lot of children at Autumn Woods. Single mothers are the majority of renters at the complex, which is geared toward tenants with low to moderate incomes. Households with incomes that are too high or low, or those made up only of full-time students, need not apply. About 10 percent of tenants hold Section 8 housing subsidy vouchers.
Three schools are clustered within view of the complex's eastern border: Rogers Heights Elementary; Port Towns Elementary, which opened this fall; and Elizabeth Seton High, a Catholic school for girls. A community center is a short walk south on 57th Avenue, and a high school is under construction a few blocks farther.
For Tiffanee Hodge, 19, Autumn Woods is her first home of her own. She pays $900 a month for a two-bedroom apartment with money she makes as a telemarketer.
"It's a good, safe environment for kids to play in," she said. That's important because her nieces and nephews visit often. They especially like the pool and computer lab. Hodge's favorite amenity is the free cable. She also likes the laundry facilities.
There are three laundry rooms in the complex. Some buildings also have their own hookups for washers and dryers.
"Not all of them have that. We kind of lucked up on it," said Andrea Cotman, 41, a caterer. She said she was grateful to have a place to install her own washer and dryer.
Her two-bedroom unit costs $870 a month and is in one of several handicapped-accessible buildings, a feature she appreciates because both her mother and brother are handicapped. She said the community is quiet, rent is reasonable and management is responsive to her needs. Her only problem, she said, was what seemed like a long wait to pass her background check in February, a month or more. "There were units available," she said. "They just had a lot of verifying to do."
Portfolio manager Mary Murphy said Landex checks criminal backgrounds in Maryland, the District and Virginia as well as checks credit reports and verifies income. Income and asset verification take the longest and might be held up if an employer or bank takes longer to respond, she said. If everything proceeds smoothly, she said, screening should take no more than five to seven business days, as long as all the paperwork was filled out completely at the start.
Resident Shereen Tolliver, 28, said she likes the free cable and the gym, although she hasn't been able to squeeze many workouts into her schedule. Tolliver moved to the area last year from New York with her baby, now 19 months old, and initially stayed with relatives in Takoma Park. She found Autumn Woods on the Internet and moved there in February. Her $850-a-month, two-bedroom unit offers the comfort and space she needed, she said, and the maintenance staff has been responsive.
Tolliver admitted, though, that there are some things she isn't crazy about. People loiter in front of the mini-mart on 57th Avenue, part of a strip of stores that includes a pharmacy, a beauty salon and a Chinese carry-out restaurant.
Also, the complex isn't close to a Metro station. There are bus stops, but before Tolliver bought her car, she waited for a bus for as long as 40 minutes.
She said, "You almost have to have a car around here."