Mayor Marion Barry turned the key to a modern two-story town house in Southeast Washington yesterday, an act that symbolized the turning of a corner in the District's attempt after years of neglect and unfulfilled promises to rebuild the 444-unit Barry Farm Dwellings housing project.

Cheers from area residents -- some of whom have been living there for 30 years -- greeted the mayor as he led a procession of officials and residents through a three-bedroom unit and a two-bedroom unit in the 1200 block of Stevens Road SE, just off Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue.

The two houses were among only eight actually completed in the initial effort to renovate 92 units, but residents and city officials alike said the $21.3 million project is ahead of schedule.

The first phase will be finished by June and all 444 will be done within 20 months, said Alphonso Jackson, who began an ambitious capital improvement project after being hired last summer by the mayor to take over the management of the city's 11,000 public housing units. The city has had plans since 1982 to rehabilitate the property.

Dorothea Ferrell, a resident of the project for 30 years who also was president of the residents' council for 10 years, said she could not count the number of times someone had promised changes, only to disappoint the residents.

"The residents had been given so many stories, they weren't sure what to believe," Jackson said, as he and the mayor toured the houses at Barry Farm, which was named after the former landowners, not the mayor.

"I promised we would renovate Barry Farm and I am delivering on that commitment," said Barry, who noted that all $21 million for the project comes from District taxes and not federal funds.

"This is the {result} of a very long, hard effort," said D.C. Council member Wilhelmina J. Rolark (D-Ward 8), who represents the area.

"This is a beautiful day," said Margie Leonard, the new president of the Barry Farm Residents' Council who has lived in the projects since 1972.

Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4), chairman of the Housing and Economic Development Committee, said that Barry Farm "has been the source of a great deal of concern" and that the project would bear watching to make sure progress is continued. "I think there certainly is a high level of energy, but there are also a great number of problems that have to be addressed" in public housing, Jarvis said.

Jackson and Barry, noting that the cost of remodeling was $48,000 for each unit, said officials decided that the dilapidated units needed complete rehabilitation rather than piecemeal work that had been done before.

Even the exterior walls were removed to add insulation that later will save the city on heating costs, Jackson said.

Sheila Dobbins, who will move into a three-bedroom house with her three daughters, said the residents were chosen by city officials after they considered their rental history in public housing, including whether they had routinely paid rents and maintained apartments.

Dobbins, who said she expected to move in within days, wore a large Washington Redskins button that proclaimed "I Bet We Get RESPECT Now." The button seemed to fit the mood at Barry Farm yesterday.