PROVIDENCE -- The Villita Apartments on Public Street look so nice now that it's easy for building residents to forget what they looked like only a year ago.
They were called the Colony Apartments then. Trash piled up in the hallways and in the corners of the courtyard. Prostitutes had set up mattresses in the basement to serve their customers. Once in a while, the linoleum apartment floors showed spots of blood, evidence that the ubiquitous mice were fighting again.
"The conditions we lived in were very, very difficult," said Nancy Castillo, "and it was very difficult to find people who would help us."
It has been a long road for Castillo and the small group of neighbors who spent seven years fighting to stop their 625 Public St. building from being condemned as they tried to raise money to improve its dilapidated condition.
But they say it was worth the fight: the apartments have received a $1.67-million rehabilitation, and have been preserved as affordable housing.
The 17 families who now live in the renamed Villita -- little village -- Apartments celebrated yesterday, officially rechristening their home after the long quest to preserve and restore the building.
"Without these homes, these 17 families who live here today might not have a home," Castillo said.
Their journey began in 2000, when the apartment complex's rent subsidy contract with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development was about to expire. The building was in sorry shape, and needed at least $300,000 worth of rehabilitation work. In July, the nonprofit Women's Development Corporation approached Colony owner Antonio Giordano to discuss purchasing and redeveloping the building.
But HUD found the proposed rehab work too expensive, touching off years of back-and-forth over whether the apartments would be rehabilitated or condemned.
Meanwhile, the conditions in the apartments were getting worse. The repair costs tripled. In May 2006, foreclosure proceedings began.
At this lowest point in the seven-year battle, only seven families remained in the 17-unit complex. All seven were headed by single women. They organized, and named themselves the Association of Women Fighting for the Colony.
The seven tried to focus publicity on their situation. They found a receptive ear in U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, who pressured HUD's national office to move the project forward. The state HUD office and Rhode Island Housing offered assistance and helped to develop a financing package.
And they found a friend in Providence police officer Max Dorley, who became personally interested in the building's problems, and went out of his way to pay it special attention, Castillo said.
In August 2006, The Women's Development Corporation acquired the property for $467,135.
Some of the acquisition money came from federal housing programs, some from Rhode Island Housing trust funds. The money for the rehabilitation came from a combination of the state's Neighborhood Opportunities Program and the Rhode Island Housing first mortgage plan.
But while yesterday was a day of celebration on Public Street, housing advocates' moods were tempered by the knowledge that in South Providence, Villita Apartments is the exception, not the rule.
Just across the street, a building sits boarded up, a reminder of the housing shortage the neighborhood continues to experience, said Rhode Island Housing Director Richard Godfrey.
"It's hard, it's very, very hard, because there's not enough money and things are getting worse," Godfrey said.
With foreclosures mounting and federal housing money drying up, the problem is national in scope, Godfrey said. But it is most severe here in Rhode Island.
"We have the greatest housing crisis in a country that has a housing crisis right here," he said.
Several years ago, Reed saw a number of projects started in the stretch of South Providence near the Villita Apartments, which are between Elmwood Avenue and Broad Street. But some of that momentum has faded, and many of those hopeful moments have not borne fruit.
"Now, that is starting to falter a bit," he said, making it doubly important that they "reaffirm our commitment" to preserving the housing opportunities in the neighborhood.
Meanwhile, according to the National Alliance of HUD Tenants, more than 300,000 federally assisted units have lost their affordable status in the last 10 years.
Housing advocates are now focusing their attention nearby, on another development in danger of losing its Federal affordable-housing status. The Medina Village complex, a cluster of 83 affordable homes in the West End, between Hanover and Waldo streets, needs to keep its Section 8 housing status to access the money needed to fix up the troubled, crime-ridden apartments.