Lenders in metropolitan Washington have been put on the defensive by renewed charges of discrimination in housing lending practices.

For bankers in D.C., the revival of the charge of redlining could play a significant role in shaping the final form of the District's interstate banking bill. Indeed, the city council committee that is holding hearings on the interstate banking bill has been urged to take a hard look at credit needs and alleged discriminatory lending practices in the District before approving the measure.

"We want to know that money for housing, small businesses and community development projects will be available, and we want to be sure that individuals are not denied access to credit because of their race, ethnicity or for any other illegal discriminatory reason," said Deborah Goldberg, director of community planning and equal credit opportunity for the Metropolitan Washington Planning and Housing Association (MWPHA).

The MWPHA's concerns deserve careful consideration by city officials. The same applies to the similar concerns of small businesses and housing advocacy groups, which they related in a letter to the chairperson of the council's housing and economic development committee, Charlene Drew Jarvis. But is it really redlining that forms a basis for concern about credit availability, and how does that relate to interstate banking?

Interstate banking will give local banks more lucrative markets "to tap in other states," possibly causing them to "further de-emphasize" services to District residents and businesses, officials of several organizations stated in the letter to Jarvis. At the same time, "We fear that out-of-state bank holding companies will be interested in coming into the District merely to skim off the cream, servicing the upscale market, while shunning the deposit and credit needs of less affluent residents," the group continued.

Although those concerns have been noted in various forms for some time now in the wake of discussions of interstate banking, they have been heightened in recent days by the release of a study alleging discriminatory lending practices in metropolitan Washington.

The study, which was done for MWPHA by a nonprofit Chicago organization, found "a pattern of residential lending decisions that benefited suburban areas to the detriment of the District of Columbia." Moreover, those lending decisions "benefited white neighborhoods" in the District "to the detriment of predominantly minority neighborhoods."

In short, racial composition is still the major factor that determines where loans are made for mortgages or home improvements in metropolitan Washington, according to the study by the Woodstock Institute.

The institute based its conclusion on an analysis of lending activity data that banks and savings and loan associations are required to report under the Home Loan Mortgage Disclosure Act of 1975. The study of lending activity in metropolitan Washington during 1981 and 1982 obviously shows a pattern of more loans to the suburbs and predominantly white wards in the District. The study is devoid, however, of documentary evidence that loan applications from D.C. residents were rejected because of race.

Nonetheless, the Woodstock Institute concluded that "redlining of the central city continues, almost 10 years after legislation was passed to eliminate this problem."

Battle lines over redlining -- the systematic refusal to make loans in designated communities -- were last drawn here in 1977. Local lenders, though reluctantly admitting that redlining was practiced here in the past, strongly deny its existence today.

Indeed, the indictment is a "slap in the face," snapped William F. Sinclair, chairman and president of Washington Federal Savings and Loan Association.

"I can state undeniably that no redlining goes on at this institution, and I don't think that any S&L in this city practices redlining," declared Dewitt T. Hartwell, chairman of Columbia First Savings and Loan and president of the Metropolitan Washington Savings and Loan League.

"We have stood up to that test before," NS&T Bank President Michael F. Ryan said of the redlining charge. District banks have "offered the record, and it has been received by the D.C. government in a positive way," added Ryan, who is also president of the D.C. Bankers Association.

Denials of redlining notwithstanding, lenders are left to explain why a pattern of lending -- favoring some areas over others -- that was documented 10 years ago still exists today.

"We don't know how many people applied and were turned down, but there is obviously a pattern there," Goldberg said. "I think it's up to the banks to explain why those patterns haven't changed."

It could be that lenders aren't marketing their services as well as they might. It could be that some potential borrowers are discouraged or intimidated by responses to their applications. It could be faulty property appraisals. It could be a legacy of past discrimination.

If not banks, S&Ls and credit unions, then someone ought to explain why the pattern continues to exist.