Seniors benefit as Marietta remakes public housing

The refurbished nine-story tower a six-block walk from the square in downtown Marietta now seems to fit the neighborhood of fashionable shops and restaurants -- or at least not look out of place, and out of date.

It took the Marietta Housing Authority almost two years and $10 million to complete the makeover of the low-income, senior living Tower at Dorsey Manor, where residents moved back in last month.

For four decades, it stood as a charmless reminder of what public housing looked like before sprinklers, before air conditioning, before such amenities as a movie theater, library, community room and computer room. Now the place even has balconies.

But the makeover isn't all physical. It's very much philosophical, even psychological, Ray Buday was saying last week. Buday is the executive director of the Marietta Housing Authority. Since he took the helm of the agency six years ago, he’s transformed the authority and the landscape of Marietta.

Many of what Buday calls the “ratty properties” -- Johnny Walker Homes, Clay Homes, Lyman Homes and Boston Homes -- are torn down, and their displaced residents are living in private apartments, subsidized by the Marietta Housing Authority with federal funds, all over the county.

It’s changed the way people look at subsidized housing for people living on low incomes, and nobody has been more transformed than the poor residents themselves, Buday said.

“When we’ve had meetings telling them we plan to tear down the building and give them Section 8 vouchers so they can go live where they want, they applaud,” Buday said. “They get to live where they want, integrate into society, and it gets rid of the stigma of the kid who lives in the project.”

In the past five years, 542 residents have been dispersed around the county. That’s turned out better, said Buday, than the real estate makeover. When the real estate economy crashed, so did the plans of the private developers who bought the land after the buildings were torn down.

The Marietta Housing Authority sold Johnny Walker to a private developer for $1.4 million, and Clay Homes to a developer for $8.5 million. Neither has been completed (the Clay Homes development has town homes standing, but they have been empty since the project was foreclosed on). “These are beautiful pieces of land, in great locations,” Buday said. “It’s sad.”

The strategy with seniors living in low-income housing is different, Buday said: Unlike younger families -- which the agency encourages to work their way up and off housing assistance -- the seniors need a community, with amenities, convenience and security.

“Many of them are on fixed incomes, and they can’t work their way up,” Buday said. “And this old building wasn’t safe, didn’t even have a sprinkler system. It was a no-brainer as soon as I got here. I had to do something.”

Of the 81 units in the Tower, 71 are subsidized, and some residents pay less than $250 a month in rent. Ten of the units -- to give the complex a socioeconomic mix -- are full market price: about $800 a month.

Watana Sirisuang Fowler, a 69-year-old widow, said she pays $254 a month in rent and about $80 in utilities. She lived in the Tower before it was refurbished, and likes the improvements -- the central air, new appliances in the kitchen, and the new floor plan. “And we have a balcony!” she says, showing a reporter around her place.

Buday’s next project is an $18 million makeover of Henderson Arms, and its 164 senior units. The Marietta Housing Authority will find out in November if its application for $9.9 million in tax credits is approved to fix up the building that it plans to rename Renaissance on Henderson.

“We’ve gotten four out of the last four tax credits we’ve applied for, so we feel good about our chances,” Buday says. Most of the rest of the funding will come from an $8.3 million Federal Housing Administration loan.