After eight years of leading a big-city public housing agency, Carl Greene knows what it's like to walk down the long, dark halls of a public housing project. He knows how far living conditions can deteriorate and how unbelievably long it can take to get a window or a toilet fixed. Most of all, he knows how children in public housing can long for something as simple as a yard where they can play outside with their friends.

This hasn't all come from on-the-job training. Greene, now executive director of the Philadelphia Housing Authority, spent his childhood in Washington, D.C., public housing. Today, such memories still drive the 49-year-old, who is on a mission to change the look and feel of public housing. "Growing up as a kid and seeing the system from the inside out as a customer and seeing how bad, bad it really can be, and then coming in as an employee [at a housing authority] with a lot of energy, a lot of drive, and finding out that people were just stealing the place blind by not earning the hours they were being paid for" is a powerful motivator, Greene says. "When I became an executive, I was determined that would not happen on my watch."

Carl Greene, shown in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, has transformed the city's once-troubled housing authority into a thriving agency.
David Moser Carl Greene, shown in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, has transformed the city's once-troubled housing authority into a thriving agency.

It hasn't. Since coming on board in March 1998, Greene has transformed a slow-moving, highly troubled government agency into one of the most successful and respected housing authorities in the country. The secret to PHA's success: an infusion of private sector business practices, with a heavy emphasis on accountability and compliance in all aspects of the agency, from operations to finance and development. As a result, Greene has been able to dramatically improve the productivity and cost-effectiveness of the agency's daily operations, allowing the agency to gain public confidence and attract public and private investors.

"He is a force to be reckoned with," says Steve Rudman, executive director of the Housing Authority of Portland. "Carl has taken a really comprehensive approach to bring the housing authority into this century in a very forward-thinking way. I am very impressed with his ability to make changes."

Drive down the streets of Philadelphia, and you'll see the proof. As executive director, Greene has invested more than $1 billion to replace barrack-style high-rise towers with new low-rise communities with the simple, neighborly appeal of market-rate apartment and townhouse properties.

Operations have also changed. "If you come and spend a day here with us, you will see this is run nothing like any public agency," says Greg Hampson, general manager of PHA's development/construction division. "We had tons of public employees run out of here [when Greene came on board] like their hair was on fire. They wanted to work from 8 to 4 ... and collect a paycheck. That is not how we operate. It is never business as usual here; we are always trying to do something better."