An article Sunday incorrectly stated Nicolette Freeman's place of employment. She works at Computer Sciences Corp. in Dumfries. (Published 09/22/1999)

Nicolette Freeman leans heavily on the door to apartment 3541A, then works her way up a narrow, poorly lit, cluttered staircase. She pauses at the top of the stairs. The living room has little more than two sagging green chairs. A depression in the bile-colored carpet marks where Freeman and her husband, Aaron, slept the previous night.

"I found a nice living room set in burgundy, but I'm still looking for mauve-colored curtains," Freeman, 29, says as she surveys the apartment where she has lived for seven months. "I'm going to have mauve walls, a gray carpet, black trim--and add some mint green to open up the colors a bit."

For years, Freeman bounced between shelters and motels. Now she has found a community in which to raise her two daughters, Angelica and Akeara. Finally, she can afford the luxury of imagining a life filled with color.

Hers is one of 138 families rebuilding their lives at the 370-unit Melrose apartments, a low-income housing community in eastern Prince William County that is being rehabilitated by the Christian Relief Services charity.

Freeman was attracted by the free child care and summer camp provided by the nonprofit group, which bought the 46-year-old complex in December. Her two-bedroom apartment fits her budget: $509 a month, compared with the county average of $652 for a two-bedroom.

For decades, large charities have purchased aging urban housing developments and renovated them. In the 1990s, those nonprofit groups expanded their efforts into heavily populated inner suburbs such as Fairfax County.

But until Relief Services bought Melrose, no housing complex in Virginia's outer suburbs had ever been owned by a nonprofit. There hadn't been the occasion: It takes time for housing complexes to fall apart, and it takes even more time for large nonprofit organizations to understand how to put them back together.

"This is a natural evolution of the growth of the metropolitan area," said Rick Lawson, planning director for Prince William. "Eastern Prince William County is a pretty mature area, and there are opportunities for redevelopment in aging multifamily housing that nonprofits, with their tax advantages, can do in an economical way."

Akeara, Freeman's 7-year-old daughter, is sprawled on the floor, her hair standing on end, her brow knitted as she draws a picture. It is of a smiling woman, a single sunflower and a house with a pointed roof that scrapes the clouds. Its chimney spews smoke horizontally. "Home doesn't have to be perfect," Freeman says.

Simply having a place of her own is enough.

After graduating from high school, Freeman said, she became involved with a man who had just served time for armed robbery. Refusing to heed her parents' warnings, she moved into his apartment in Alexandria and became pregnant before her 20th birthday.

Her boyfriend's behavior was erratic. His temper worsened, and he developed drug problems, she said. He began to hit her. Freeman became pregnant again and had her second daughter, Akeara.

She became depressed. Desperate. She had to escape.

She left her boyfriend and moved into a shelter to save money. She taught herself calligraphy and designed party invitations for lawyers, doctors and businessmen. She bought cheap lampshades, painted them and resold them as fans. She bought wine bottles and sold them as vases.

She saved enough money to move into a motel and began taking night classes in business management. Impatient, she took the textbooks home and read them on her own.

She found a job as a graphic designer at Decision Systems Technologies Inc. of Dumfries and began searching for a nearby affordable apartment in a good neighborhood.

Her search ended at Melrose.

When United Dominion Realty Trust, a for-profit real estate trust, bought Melrose in 1981, it spent nearly $3 million to add air conditioning and balconies to the barrack-like apartments originally built as off-base housing for the nearby Quantico Marine Corps Base.

Over time, however, the community eroded. Drug dealers--among the most consistent rent payers--moved in. The metal poles that half a century ago held clothesline were unused, rusted. Abandoned furniture littered back yards, while abandoned cars crowded curbs.

"We weren't successful at creating feelings of community, and we got frustrated," said Rick Arbore, United Dominion regional manager. "It takes a special type of individual to manage Melrose."

So United Dominion decided to sell Melrose, along with 17 other low-income complexes in Virginia, Delaware and Maryland.

But the private sector was reluctant to risk buying a troubled Melrose, and the county Office of Housing and Community Development--with an annual redevelopment budget of $700,000--couldn't afford the renovations.

Christian Relief Services focuses most of its nationwide efforts--including schooling and health care, as well as housing--on destitute children and the homeless. But in recent years the Lorton-based charity also has redeveloped housing for working families in four other states. So, when Melrose was up for sale, Relief Services decided to clean up its own back yard.

The group bought Melrose for $11.9 million in December and plans to spend $1.2 million on renovations over two years. So far, Relief Services has filled 17 Dumpsters, towed 16 cars and evicted 62 tenants. It rebuilt nearby Grady Park swimming pool. And it vacated several apartments whose tenants were suspected drug dealers.

In the three months after the group bought the property, police were called to Melrose 19 times. Since then, police have been called once.

"We're lessening the burden of government; now they don't have to own this real estate," said Bryan Krizek, vice president for housing at Christian Relief Services, which also is considering redeveloping properties in Glen Burnie, Md., and Alexandria.

Freeman settles in a ragged chair that has no legs. She says she does not plan to live in Melrose forever. She says she wants to move out in five years, buy a small plot of land, design her own home.

"And it'll have a living room set in mustard brown--or, wait, maybe burnt orange."