Ed Rendell hired Carl Greene away from Detroit’s housing authority to run Philadelphia’s in 1998, near the end of his second term as mayor. (Greene had been sued for sexual harassment by one of his employees in Detroit — a case that was later settled — and Rendell dispatched a lawyer to check into it; the Mayor concluded that it would not be a recurring problem.) PHA, which had 2,700 employees and owned or controlled 22,000-plus properties — many unusable — had long been a cesspool of patronage and inefficiency and neglect.
If you were a PHA tenant with, say, water leaking into your kitchen, it would take an average of 200 days for anybody from Housing to come take a look at it. PHA workers didn’t much care. Many of them, Greene found, had all kinds of family working there — sons and daughters and cousins and so forth. The city’s political culture had installed workers with a sort of lifelong tenure.
Moreover, the authority’s computer systems were ages behind, the business practices outdated, and enforcement of basic workplace expectations — such as coming in to work every day and actually working — nonexistent.
His first day on the job, Greene showed up at 6:30. His employees began straggling in at 9:30, 10. So for the next six months, he called a meeting every morning at 7:30 with different groups of workers. He created a new organizational chart. He regularly dressed down employees in meetings if he felt they were unprepared — workers would sometimes leave meetings and walk right on out of the building, never to return. Within a year, most of the senior staff was gone. It was the only way to change the agency’s culture: Shred it.
Greene’s explanation of his management style is — well, it is this: “I look at the concept of love, and I look at the concept of evil, and I don’t think that either of them were part of my standards. I think accomplishments, numerical and statistical measurements of accomplishment — I had success or failure, as opposed to love and evil.”
Greene was, at any rate, fearless. He says he had an early meeting with Congressman Bob Brady, who told him, “I want the entry-level jobs. I always get the entry-level jobs.” Greene didn’t even know what Brady was talking about at first. But he quickly caught on to what was happening — patronage — and pressed his only point of power: He owed the political culture nothing.
One of his first tasks in his first month in Philly, when he was still commuting back to Detroit three days a week, was to address public housing in Spring Garden — nearly 100 rowhomes scattered around the neighborhood; they were a thorn in the area’s gentrification. The local civic association wanted control of PHA properties. So did Vince Fumo, who owned a mansion at 22nd and Green. So did council president John Street, whose district it was. Rendell just wanted the problem to go away.
Greene had to hit the ground running. At his first Spring Garden community meeting, he was sworn at in at least two languages: The Latinos and Puerto Ricans who lived in PHA houses were sure they’d be forced out of the neighborhood. There would be many more meetings, where Greene would preach his gospel over and over: The tenants would be moved while their homes were rehabbed, then brought back. They were not being pushed out.