Brockton, Mass.—This city of 95,000 people is known as the City of Champions because it’s the home of two boxing legends, Marvin Hagler and Rocky Marciano. An affordable housing project here has witnessed three decades of ups and downs. But finally, it’s producing champions of its own.

“With all the programs we’ve got going and all the community building, we’re inspiring our tenants,” said Bill Kargman, president of First Realty Management, the Boston-based property management firm that manages Davis Commons. “Our tenants have pride in where they live and in turn, have confidence in themselves.”

The National Affordable Housing Management Association honored First Realty Management this year with a Community of Quality award for turning around Davis Commons. The firm manages some 6,000 residential units, including affordable housing, condos, market-rate, and luxury rental properties in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island.

The 200-unit garden-style apartment complex, which targets households earning no more than 60 percent of the area median income, is located in a residential neighborhood, surrounded by modest, single-family homes. The site is adjacent to a large wooded area, however, which attracted drug dealers and other criminals. The property manager battled vandalism and a climate of suspicion and fear between elderly residents and youth. Plus, over the past 30 years, tenants at the 34-year-old complex had to contend with finding employment as jobs in New England mill cities moved to other states or overseas.

Each time rents caught up with expenses, the residents were left behind. The owners did not have the funds to recapitalize the property, and the vacancy rate rarely dipped below 15 percent.

“It was a long, long road. It sure didn’t happen overnight,” said William Casper, general partner of the property’s owner, National Affordable Housing, L.P., of Brockton. “But it’s been very gratifying for us to see where the property is now and where it was. It was a collaborative effort between residents, owners, and the management team.”

What’s Davis Commons like now? The property’s vacancy rate is about 2 percent, with a turnover rate of about three units per month. Those generally are re-rented promptly. Youths at the apartment community are involved in an academic competition every year with other First Realty properties that takes place at Harvard University.

Refinancing was key

How did First Realty do it? It convinced the complex’s owner, Southfield Gardens Co., to sell the property—originally a Sec. 236 development—to National Affordable Housing. And it refinanced the property using tax credits, which made funds available for significant upgrades. The most significant improvement was a new community center that houses activity rooms, a meeting room, a computer learning center, a laundry center, and management offices.

It cost $3.8 million to build the community center and make extensive renovations. Among the improvements: new fencing, a new playground, curved awnings over entryways, new doors and hardware, durable flooring in each unit, new window sills, new low-flow toilets, new dishwashers, new heating systems, a new irrigation system, new shrubs and trees, and more. Additional surveillance cameras were installed throughout the property. First Realty switched from using private security firms to permitting a local police officer to protect residents and the property. Kargman said that the city of Brockton offered a paid police detail.

“This made a big difference,” Kargman said. “Security officers did not work. They just didn’t bond with residents.” First Realty’s goal was to keep the drug dealers out, but that change brought an unanticipated benefit, as the local police officers exerted a positive influence on the youths in the complex.

Normand Baril, Davis Common’s property manager, sat down with residents to find out what they needed to do to bring residents together. First Realty put into place several programs involving community outreach. They focused on employment, education, civic responsibility, and a sense of community.

Students at nearby Stonehill College tutor children at Davis Commons four days a week. Sixteen- and 17-year-olds at the apartment community created a mural for the community room wall with the help of the Boston Arts Collaborative. The theme of the mural was an illustration of their feelings about the sense of community taking shape at the complex.

Furthering the sense of belonging, First Realty created a Life History program in which teenagers were each teamed up with an elder neighbor to share their life stories. Arts and crafts activities are available to children and adults.

Teenagers attend a monthly Teen Night in which they cook their own dinner, watch movies, and talk about what’s going on in their lives. A guest speaker often stops in to lead discussions. Seniors look forward to adult bingo nights once a week.

And every month, an outstanding child or adult is awarded Resident of the Month and featured in Davis Common’s monthly newsletter.

Early in the long turnaround, the property adopted a motto: Experience the Difference.

“We’ve had a few tenants who were here since the beginning,” said Kargman, who is on a first-name basis with residents. “I’m so happy that they chose to stick it out and see the transformation.” It’s more than a turnaround, he added: “It’s been resurrected.”