The District of Columbia housing department has notified tenants who live in city-owned housing while awaiting permanent relocation that they must move out of their residences by Feb. 1.

Tenants have to vacate by that date, according to the letter from the housing department's urban renewal division, in order for the city to carry out its new relocation program.

But top city housing officials who could be reached yesterday said they had not seen the letter, and could not comment about its intent. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development recently has criticized the city for its relocation efforts, and threatened to withhold grant money unless the program is improved.

In the letter to tenants, dated Oct. 31, Robert Lomax Jr., chief of the urban renewal branch, noted that the housing staff will help families find places to move to, and that if suitable housing becomes available during that 90-day period, "your must take advantage of it."

The letter leaves unclear just what will happen to tenants awaiting relocation if suitable housing is not found during the 90 days. Some tenants have expressed concern that it means they will be evicted with no place to go.

Lorenzo W. Jacobs Jr., director of the city's Department of Housing and Community Development, said yesterday that he had not seen a copy of the letter and could not comment on its intent. Elbert Ransom Jr., head of relocation for the city, also said he had not seen it and declined further comment. Lomax could not be reached.

Jacobs did say, however, that the housing department had begun a new policy regarding families who are displaced because of construction or rehabilitation projects financed by HUD. From now on, the city department will offer displaced persons three permanent housing units that meet D.C. housing code and HUD regulations, Jacobs said. If the displaced family refuses all three "without good cause," the family may be evicted, he said.

"HUD has required us to relocate these families," said Jacobs. "In the past we have been too kind-hearted when people rejected the housing we have offered. We want to make sure they understand that once we have referred them to three units, then we have fulfilled our obligations and may or may not proceed to evict."

The housing department's notice to tenants has prompted the Neighborhood Legal Services Program, the organization that filed a formal complaint with HUD last August about the city's relocation plan, to write an angry letter to jacobs, demanding that the notices be revoked.

"The form in which the notice is written will clearly alarm most tenants who tend to view any notice to vacate as an order to leave at once," the letter from the public service, law firm said. It called the notices "scare tactics" and an attempt "to get people to move immediately on their own so that DHCD can show HUD that it has reduced its workload."

HUD recently threatened to withhold $26 million in federal community development block grnt funds from the District this year because of its concern over the city's relocation program for displaced families.

HUD regulations state that families displaced when their homes are acquired by the city for HUD-financed projects can be temporarily relocated for up to one year before permanent housing is found for them. A HUD review found that the city was violating those regulations.

The city's new policy of offering three alternatives to affected families was outlined in a 64-page report that the city housing department recently submitted to HUD for its review. In its report, the city said it expects to relocate the 317 families who have been displaced because of HUD-subsidized projects by the end of next September, with the 118 families who are in temporary housing moved within six months. The annual income of the displaced families averaged $5,289, the report said, and most of them live in Northwest.

Often, displaced persons want to continue to live in the same or nearby neighborhoods, and turn down housing in other sections that may be offered them, particularly if it is in Southeast, the report said. Some tenants have valid complaints, the report noted but others "clearly are not cooperative," the city contends.

Displaced persons have various reasons for rejecting housing units the city has found for them. One man refused to move temporarily to a building that was center of heavy drug traffic. Another family refused to move from their rundown Northwest home to Southeast because they felt they would have major transportation problems.

Beulah Johnson, whose landlord is the city, lives at 133 Bates St. NW in a dilapidated row house with her six children. They have one bedroom, plus a dining area that they converted to a bedroom. Johnson has lived there since 1969, and has yet to be relocated to temporary or permanent housing by the city, she said.

Seven years ago, Johnson broke her leg when she fell through the floor in the bathroom, she told a reporter. Pieces of the bathroom ceiling have fallen on her children in the past. Three months ago, she said, her baby was found to have lead poisioning. The kitchen floods, there is no hot water in the bathroom, and the kitchen sink and stove appear to be slowly sinking through the floor, Johnson said. Johnson said she applied for public housing nine years ago and is still waiting.Four months ago, she began to pack, told by city that they had found a house for her to move in temporarily. But she decided not to make that move after looking at the new residence.

"They tried to give me some junk on Kenilworth Avenue that looked worse than this," Johnson said.