Mayor Marion Barry ordered city housing officials yesterday to clean up and repair the city's decaying stock of public housing so that it is no longer "a dump but a place to live."

Barry called the housing department's record of maintenance, repair and rent collection in the city's 53 public housing projects "nonsense" and promised that they will be "cleaner, safer and more sanitary" within a year.

After a private four-hour meeting with the managers of the 53 projects, which house 45,000 to 50,000 people, Barry said he was most disappointed in the failure of the housing staff to cut more dramatically into the backlog of 17,000 maintenance requests on file when his administration took office in January.Some of those requests were more than three years old, he said.

Housing Director Robert L. Moore, who also attended the meeting, charged that some building maintenance workers have exhibited "callousness" in dealing with tenant requests for repairs.

In one instance he said a family requested a new lock because an old one no longer worked and the maintenance worker went home at the end of the day without ever installing a new one.

Such actions "endanger a family's life and we won't tolerate that," Moore said he told the group.

Similar instances of slack or indifferent maintenance have been reported by tenants who claimed that sinks and toilets remained plugged for several days before repairs were made, Moore said.

In the past the city's efforts to upgrade services to its public housing tenants have been hampered by the fact that the federal government has refused to increase its public housing subsidy to the city because it has poorly managed such funds.

In addition, the city has done a poor job of collecting rent which helps defray the cost of building maintenance, Moore said. In January the city was owed $1.5 million in back rent by public housing tenants, he said, a figure which has since been reduced to $850,000.

Currently, the city has only $6 million specifically earmarked for the massive job of repairing the city's 10 worst projects -- a task Moore estimates may eventually cost $60 million. Moore said the city wants to use tax dollars and community development grant funds to help while it attempts to resolve its differences with the federal government.

Both Barry and Moore said the new administration must correct years of bureaucratic mismanagement and maintenance delays that have plunged the city-owned housing into its wretched conditions.

"These are now places of death, destruction and drugs," Moore has said of the 10 worst projects.

Barry said he and Moore also listened as the managers and foremen complained that they lack adequate manpower, equipment and supplies to make all the needed repairs.

Moore said, "They feel put upon by the residents, the mayor and the press. These people are putting a tremendous amount (of pressure) on them and they feel they don't have the resources to respond."

Moore said the department has reduced the 17,000 backlog to 9,000 and assigned 300 to 400 maintenance employes from the downtown office to specific projects.