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PHA spent lavishly on pet projects, upgrades

Beyond the entrance to the Wilson Park public-housing complex in South Philadelphia, the new Garden Pavilion stands like a tall ship with full sails.

Before the new Garden Pavilion, left, at the Wilson Park housing complex in South Philly was finished in June, Carl R. Greene (inset), then-PHA chief, ordered granite sheathing for columns. The cost: $448,700. (Clem Murray / Staff Photographer)
Before the new Garden Pavilion, left, at the Wilson Park housing complex in South Philly was finished in June, Carl R. Greene (inset), then-PHA chief, ordered granite sheathing for columns. The cost: $448,700. (Clem Murray / Staff Photographer)Read more

Beyond the entrance to the Wilson Park public-housing complex in South Philadelphia, the new Garden Pavilion stands like a tall ship with full sails.

The outdoor courtyard, with eight permanent tables and a peaked, fabric roof, spans 8,000 square feet.

Before it was finished in June, Carl R. Greene, then executive director of the Philadelphia Housing Authority, ordered a flurry of design changes.

He asked the board for more money to sheath columns and low planter walls with granite instead of brick. Designers for the agency combed building-supply showrooms and came up with a red-speckled variety. The cost: $448,700.

Greene wanted the canopy dyed a special shade of tan. In a memo to the board, he said it would blend in better with the surrounding brown-brick high-rises. The board approved $55,680 for the custom order.

He also asked for - and got - $49,000 for a portable audiovisual system, capable of projecting outdoor movies, even during the day.

In the end, what started out as a $1.8 million project ballooned by almost a million dollars in extra costs, according to PHA contract documents obtained by The Inquirer under the Pennsylvania Right-to-Know Law.

That's equal to what it would cost for the authority to renovate 10 vacant houses for families.

"This is just another example of Carl Greene's imperiousness, his ability to act as if it's his own money," said City Controller Alan Butkovitz, who, under PHA's charter, appoints two of the agency's directors.

The $2.8 million pavilion was the last project Greene completed before being fired in September for secretly settling multiple sexual-harassment complaints against him.

Greene has been lauded for reshaping the face of public housing in Philadelphia, receiving national awards and recognition for his accomplishments over the last 12 years. But employees who have worked for him recall how he lavishly spent money on nonhousing projects.

They point to the canopy and other pet projects - a $12 million office building in the Greater Grays Ferry Estates, a planned $20 million Center City headquarters, and the $4 million John F. Street Community Center - as symbols of his unchallenged power and extravagance.

Interviews with more than a dozen past and present employees, combined with a review of construction contracts, show how Greene spent money freely.

And as he did, the ranks of low-income families in need of housing have swelled. In Philadelphia, about 100,000 households are waiting for public housing, rent subsidies, or both - a fourfold increase since 2001.

While Greene wanted to remove the stigma of poverty from public housing, "some of what he did seemed to be monuments to himself," said Len Trower, a former contract administrator, whose job was to keep track of PHA spending.

Greene has been in seclusion since August, receiving medical care for stress-related maladies. He has denied that he sexually harassed women and is suing the PHA board and its chairman, former Mayor John F. Street, for damages to his reputation.

Greene and his lawyer, Clifford E. Haines, did not respond to a written request seeking comment.

Employees who spoke on background say Greene thought nothing of changing projects midstream or after designers and construction teams had finished their work.

At the Wilson Park community center, he had floor tiles ripped out on the eve of the ribbon-cutting because he didn't like the bright green and yellow colors. At the John F. Street Community Center, he ordered the relocation of ductwork on the ceiling of a multipurpose room - at an added cost of $201,578 - because he thought it cluttered the space.

His design aesthetic reached into all aspects of the agency. In 2005, Greene custom-ordered uniforms for more than 200 managers, demanding a particular shade of purple for the wool-blend fabric. A former employee familiar with the order said the outfits - a blazer plus either three trousers or skirts - cost more than $500 per employee.

Staff disliked the uniforms intensely. One woman said she felt like "Barney the dinosaur" in hers. Just two years later, the outfits were replaced with navy blazers.

Enthralled with technology, Greene made it a practice to outfit new offices that PHA built with sophisticated audiovisual systems. His goal was to have the capability to beam a meeting at one location to any PHA site.

Even a new $2.3 million senior-day-care center at the Warnock residence in North Philadelphia will open this year with $600,000 in audiovisual equipment, according to PHA contract documents and work orders. Michael Johns, PHA's general manager for community development and design, said the North Philadelphia building where the day-care center is located also includes offices for PHA staff in the Section 8 rent-voucher program. He said the audiovisual equipment would be used in a multipurpose room and two computer labs, accessible to both seniors and PHA staff.

Several PHA employees said it was futile to challenge Greene. Employees said his personality was so autocratic that they feared retribution if they spoke up.

Yet, if workers felt unable to question Greene's spending, PHA's board saw no need to rein him in. Until the revelations about sexual-harassment charges, the five commissioners expressed total confidence in Greene and rarely overturned his decisions.

Street, PHA's chairman, said he had no interest in commenting on Greene's spending habits.

The federal government also empowered Greene with extraordinary freedom to decide how to spend funds.

Of the 3,200 public-housing authorities across the country, PHA is one of only 33 with special designation as a "Moving to Work" (MTW) agency. Since 2001, the agency has been able to spend its federal funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) with far more leeway than traditional housing authorities.

The MTW concept arose out of debate in the 1990s to deregulate housing and give local officials more responsibility for coming up with ways to make low-income families more self-sufficient.

Among large housing authorities, the PHA board is an anomaly. Mayor Nutter does not control it; he only appoints two members. The city controller names the other two, and the board collectively selects a tenant representative.

To understand Greene's flexibility to spend funds, consider a recent project to build a new office building at the Greater Grays Ferry Estates in South Philadelphia.

As part of a massive redevelopment, PHA demolished 1,000 units at the old Tasker Homes and replaced them with 554 homes in a suburban-style setting. The money was raised by selling bonds, with future capital allocations from HUD going to repay investors.

A small part of the project was a plan for a 10,000-square-foot community center. The contract was awarded in 2005 to Dale Construction of Glenside for $3.75 million.

But in the following three years, the simple town hall morphed into a 30,000-square-foot office building for PHA staff, according to PHA documents.

The cost jumped $8.9 million. Two floors were added. Audiovisual systems with drop-down screens and recessed projectors were installed in four classrooms and a multipurpose room for more than $500,000. The high-definition equipment was so sophisticated that PHA had to contract technicians to run it.

Other add-ons ranged from $6,500 for a cherrywood podium to $247,887 for security upgrades such as cameras and ID-card readers; from $48,000 for outdoor signs with the PHA motto - "Building Beyond Expectations" - to $180,000 for folding partitions in meeting rooms.

As the scope of the project changed and tripled in cost, the PHA board was never consulted.

The board didn't have to be, said PHA spokeswoman Nichole Tillman. That's because Dale Construction had already been approved by the board for a "master construction management contract" that allowed it to handle as much as $75 million in PHA work.

She said PHA wanted to own rather than rent its office space. When a Center City deal fell through, she added, "we decided instead to build an office and training center on our own property at a lower cost than if we had bought an existing building."

For such a large municipal agency to operate without a rigorous internal set of checks and balances is unusual, public-housing experts say.

Should the Greater Grays Ferry office project have gone to the board for approval? asked Orlando Cabrera, a former HUD assistant secretary of public and Indian housing from 2005 to 2007. "Anyone rational would say, sure, yes. The board is the CEO's boss."

Donna White, a HUD spokeswoman, had no comment on the handling of the Greater Grays Ferry project, "because questionable actions like this" would be reviewed as part of a forensic audit HUD has been conducting at the Philadelphia authority.

The fourth-largest housing authority in the nation, PHA has renovated or rebuilt 7,000 units of housing since 2000, raising $1.7 billion in public and private funds. Today, it serves 29,348 households, up about 20 percent from 2001.

Despite those increases, the agency is falling behind the demand for low-cost housing in Philadelphia. Almost one in six households in Philadelphia is on the PHA wait-list for housing or rent vouchers, statistics show.

Greene's critics cite that trend when examining his spending for projects like the Wilson Park canopy, or design changes that could add thousands, sometimes millions, to project costs.

Tillman said the Wilson Park pavilion was built to increase resident events "in a cost-effective manner" by providing a permanent venue.

"Prior to building the canopy, PHA's practice was to rent tents, chairs, tables, and audiovisual equipment" for gatherings, she said.

The plan for the canopy was laid in 2007 - the year PHA laid off 350 employees, or one-fifth of its workforce, and Greene issued dire warnings that federal budget cuts would impede the agency's ability to house the poor.

A former employee, who worked on the Wilson Park canopy and thought it wasteful, said the most the staff could do was "hope the project would die."

Many employees also cite the greenhouse-style community room at the Nellie Reynolds Garden residence as another example of Greene's exerting his will without consideration of cost.

The $20 million senior citizen complex in North Philadelphia, financed through low-income-housing tax credits, was named after the PHA board member who lives across the street and used to tend a garden on the site.

Planners designed a 3,000-square-foot community room with tinted glass. But Greene insisted on clear glass. According to three people with firsthand knowledge of the project, Greene said he wanted Nellie Reynolds to be able to "see the stars and moon" at night.

One problem: Clear glass was less energy efficient and would cause the room to heat up more. The staff explored the price of installing manual shades to help keep the temperature down inside the room, but that would have been too costly. They also nixed the idea of adding an abundance of hanging plants to soak up the heat.

In the end, they had to boost the air-conditioning capacity for the room, installing equipment with enough power to cool the equivalent of 50 apartments.

"It was such an opulent waste of money," said a former employee who worked on the project.

Tillman, the PHA spokeswoman, said the room was designed "as an indoor tropical oasis for seniors." She said the cost of cooling the room has been minimal because the air-conditioning is hardly used. "Seniors prefer the room to be kept very warm," Tillman said.

Indeed, on a recent sunny day, the empty room, with sofas arranged under four giant, potted schefflera trees, was a snug 84 degrees.