Washington's public housing operation, which provides homes for nearly a tenth of the city's population, is seeing some changes these days, with long-delayed renovation efforts under way at several major projects and a new chief, a 39-year-old New Jersey housing developer, about to take over.

It's all part of an effort to change both public and private attitudes toward public housing, according to D.C. housing director James E. Clay.

Clay said he selected Donald Harris of Plainfield, N.J., as the city's new public housing chief because he was "not a traditional person with 20 years of public housing experience. I was looking for someone with a great deal of experience in management in the public and private sector."

"It public housing is a business. We spend $45 million a year and we have to run it like a business," Clay said.

Harris, who worked for two small public housing agencies in the early 1970s, takes over the task of operating nearly 12,000 city-owned apartments and town houses on Sept. 12. He will be Washington's largest landlord, managing housing for about 60,000 city residents, the majority of them elderly women or single mothers with small children who receive public assistance.

Sidney Glee, the current city property management administrator--as the public housing chief is formally known--will become deputy administrator of the housing department's office of administration and management, Clay said.

Harris will take over at a time when the housing department is moving forward with an ambitious $59.5 million program to gut and rebuild most of the interiors of four large public housing projects containing more than 1,700 units.

Two years ago Mayor Marion Barry announced the renovation plans as part of a wide-ranging public housing maintenance and repair program. While much of the maintenance work, such as replacement of doors and windows and heating pipes, has been accomplished, the four modernization projects have moved much more slowly.

The first to get started was the rebuilding of the 267-unit James Creek project in Southwest, now nearing completion.

A second project, East Capitol Dwellings, is half vacant in anticipation of the renovation work, which has been delayed repeatedly but is now scheduled to start in October.

Work is also under way or beginning on:

* The complete interior rebuilding of 84 units at the Lincoln Heights Project in Northeast, with construction scheduled to begin on another 109 units in January. The $18.8 million reconstruction of the 440-unit project, said to be in the worst shape of any of the city's public housing projects, will be completed in phases.

* The $14.4 million refurbishing of Barry Farms, a 432-unit project south of Anacostia and the $9.5 million modernization of Benning Terrace, a 274-unit project just off Benning Road. The city will ask for bids on both projects later this month.

* Final repairs of 46 basement apartments that were vacant at the city's Valley Green project for more than eight years because of sewer backups. About 30 of the apartments are finished and occupied but substantial cleanup work remains to be done.

So far the success story of the effort is the 42-year-old James Creek project.

It has been transformed from a series of rundown barrack-like buildings into a development of attractive town houses resembling the more expensive privately owned housing located just a few blocks away.

"The biggest problem I have is some people who want to move in" and cannot because their incomes are higher than the allowable levels for public housing residents, Clay said.

"They can't understand why we are putting public housing people in here."

The grassy front yards are now enclosed by shiny black wrought iron fences; the back yards have patios and picnic tables.

The interiors are completely new, with bay windows added to the units as a new feature. Many residents have bought carpeting to cover the tile floors and others also have bought new furniture. There is little trash or litter to be seen.

"I would expect James Creek to look like this forever because it now looks like the rest of Southwest," said Clay during a recent visit. "I think it has been proven if we make an effort to do little things they the tenants will try, too. It is basic human nature. People respond to their environment. If we don't care, they don't care either."

To keep the refurbished projects like new the city is conducting a new program of regular inspections of the homes, designed to identify both building problems and damage by tenants, and to repair troubles quickly. Such inspections are under way at James Creek already, and will be instituted at the other projects as work is completed.

"I never thought we would see it," said Emily Lynch as she sat at her new dining room table in the four-bedroom house that became her home a year ago.

"Even the children seem to be a lot better behaved," said Lynch, who works at Walter Reed Hospital and has lived in James Creek for 18 years.

But she, like other tenants, still has some complaints. A leak started under her bathroom toilet soon after her family moved in, she said. The leak was fixed but not the cracks the water caused in a dining room wall. In addition, the cooking hood over the stove fell recently, she said.

Other tenants complained of low quality paint on interior walls and of poorly hung doors and windows that they fear will boost their utility costs this fall by allowing cold air to leak into their homes.

Clay said none of the complaints had been reported to his office but that he would investigate them.

The other side of the public housing situation is visible across town at East Capitol Dwellings, where half the 577 units are vacant and boarded-up in anticipation of the long-planned rehabilitation project. Clay said construction would begin in about two weeks but other officials put the starting date in October.

Cleophus Rice, an East Capitol resident, lives next door to a large red, white and blue city sign that announces the project. The sign appeared soon after Barry visited the project last August and promised residents that construction was imminent. It was practically the same promise he had made at a similar ceremony and news conference two years earlier.

"There is no question that it the renovation has been unduly delayed," said Clay, adding that the delay resulted primarily from the city's receiving only $18 million in federal funds for the project when it had expected $21 million. The plans for the renovation have been redrawn three times because of the uncertainty over the amount of money available to pay for them, Clay said.

At the same time, the city decided to try a new construction management system for the project, which officials say has already helped to save money by bringing in lower-than-expected bids for the project, but which also has contributed to delays by increasing the number of bids the city had to review and approve.

New housing director Harris said he was well aware of the problems facing public housing here, including what he termed the public perception that "public housing is unmanageable because of the tenants and staff."

But, he added, "I see it as a tremendous career opportunity for me and for the skills I have developed to work with some dedicated people" such as the mayor, Clay, and the City Council. "I understand it will be very difficult and tedious but I maintain that anything worth having is worth working for."

Harris, who received an undergraduate degree from Western Michigan University and earned a master's degree in social welfare from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, has spent the past year heading Vogue Housing Connection, a minority-owned development company that builds and sells single family homes. He said he is the company's founder and managing partner.

From 1971 to 1973, Harris said, he worked as a director of management for the Public Housing Authority in Oakland, Calif., which has 4,800 units. He then moved on to become director of public housing in Louisville, with 6,800 units, where he stayed until 1976.

Before founding his own company, he worked with a private group to develop housing in a 174-block that surrounds the five universities in Newark, N.J., Harris said.