Its landlord overwhelmed by his debt in the apartment complex, Woodland Springs had deteriorated into more of a haven for drugs and despair than a home for 3,000 Prince George's residents.
It was 1992, decades after the complex was built for soldiers returning from World War II, and county and federal housing officials decided to seek professional help.
The job fell to Marilynn K. Duker, whose transformation of the troubled property has helped propel her reputation in real estate circles and her career at a growing Baltimore-based real estate firm, the Shelter Group.
Now, a decade later, Duker has worked at just about every job at Shelter, which develops and manages apartment complexes and senior living facilities. She is the only employee to rise through the company to a leadership role. About a month ago, she became president and chief operating officer of Shelter's development arm and is one of five partners that control Shelter - and the only woman.
Others inside and outside Shelter point to Duker's successful effort to lure and wire together multiple lenders and public agencies at Woodland Springs as an example of her fitness to lead.
Shelter, which turns 25 years old this year, has maintained a low public profile despite an employment roll that totals 1,100, development of $1 billion worth of real estate and management of 22,000 apartments across the country.
Though not as big as the real estate investment trusts that dominate the apartment market, Shelter is the 44th-largest U.S. apartment management company, according to the National Multi Housing Council, an industry association.
The privately held company does not disclose its revenue, but its officials said percentage returns on developments average from the high teens to the mid-20s, which has help it build loyalty among investors crucial to its growth.
Duker, a 20-year veteran of Shelter, was the company's third employee. The founder, Mark K. Joseph, a lawyer turned real estate entrepreneur, hired her after he hired an assistant. Joseph decided to take a chance on a young woman with a resume that included little more than a master's degree in city planning from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an internship at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Duker's first assignment was developing the downtown Charles Street building that is now Shelter's headquarters. The awkwardly shaped site in Charles Center had been a movie theater and an ice skating rink. Building a large office and apartment building on it had become a daunting task considering urban and design constraints and several skeptical lenders.
Duker had pulled all the pieces together on that project, her boss thought. So he handed her Woodland Springs, which also had tough physical and financial problems on top of social ones. Its owner had defaulted on a HUD loan and let the property rot.
Duker, now 46, thought she was ready for the assignment.
"But I didn't know what I didn't know," Duker said.
Joseph, a former deputy Baltimore housing commissioner, said he knew she could learn on the job.
He had learned about Duker from an associate of his at HUD, who was her boss. He contacted her the day she planned to accept a job in New York.
After two weeks of discussions, he offered her a job.
"I needed to hire someone who was comfortable in any role and could handle enormously tough and complex financing and could deal with people," said Joseph, who now heads Municipal Mortgage & Equity LLC, a bond management and real estate investment company that is a public spinoff of Shelter. To avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest, MuniMae does not do a lot of business with Shelter, and Joseph is no longer involved in day-to-day operations at Shelter.
"Finance and business people tend have an entrepreneurial focus and are not people-oriented. Marilynn was all that. And she didn't have to break any glass ceilings because she was here before one could go up," he said.
Joseph said many more women have entered commercial real estate in the past two decades, but men largely dominate the worlds of development and finance.
Duker said she is often the only woman in the room but that she has never felt out of place.
Maybe because she's 6 feet tall. She prefers, however, to credit her relationship-building and track record.
Thomas S. Bozzuto, president of Bozzuto & Associates Inc., which competes with Shelter for development and management deals, said Duker knows her business.
Of Shelter's five partners, the only woman is Duker, who heads Shelter Development LLC. She is responsible for building projects in the mid-Atlantic region and buying existing complexes across the country.