The District of Columbia wants to sell 56 boarded-up city-owned homes to moderate income public housing tenants rather than repair and rent them to some of the more than 10,000 poor who must wait up to five years for a chance to move into public housing.

The District's plan, which city officials say is designed to enable some curerent public housing tenants to become homeowners, is being opposed by the federal government because it will reduce the number of dwellings the city has available to rent to the poor at a time when demand for such housing is so high.

The 56 units comprise Deanwood Gardens, which has been identified by city officials as one of the ten worst public housing projects in the city. Today Deanwood, in Northeast Washington, is a ghost town, its empty semi-detached homes made uninhabitable by previous public housing tenants who abused them, city officials say.

Plans to rehabilitate the homes and rent them to public housing tenants have been rejected by the city in the past because of high repair and maintenance costs and opposition from local residents, who argue that the area already is saturated with public housing.

Instead, the city is proposing a program under which it would partially rehabilitate the homes, sell them to public housing tenants with moderate income levels, and then teach the new owners how to complete the rehabilitation themselves in order to give them a taste of pride in ownership.

"We're not talking about a luxury unit, but a basic, plain unit where people could live," said city housing director Robert L. Moore. While the new owners lived there, they would complete the rehabilitation work themselves "to allow them to have a greater appreciation of the unit," he said.

"Just to rehab them, [the public housing units] would simply compound the problem that brought them down to begin with," Moore said.

The program comes at a time when the new administration of Mayor Marion Barry appears to be seeking ways to solve problems that have long plagued the city's public housing. Chief among those problems, which include rising costs, declining or frozen federal subsidies, and poor maintenance practices, has been vadalism by the public housing tenants themselves, city officials say.

In April, at the same time the city proposed its program to the department of Housing and Urban Development, Moore submitted a report to Barry on the condition of the city's housing. Moore found that more than a quarter of the city's 11,571 public housing units were in such an ad- vanced state of decay that it will cost between $30 million and $60 million to make needed repairs.

Moore estimates the partial rehabilitation of Deanwood Gardens would cost the city between $1.1 million and $1.9 million. Since the 28 buildings that house the 56 units are in "total desrepair," Moore said, the city would install new roofs, heating systems, kitchens and bathrooms, electrical and plumbing systems and correct serious storm flooding problems.

Qualified public housing tenants would be able to buy the units for $15,000 each and be required to make a $250 downpayment. Mortgage payments would be keyed to their ability to take a home repair and maintenance course offered by the city.

The new residents then would complete the rehabilitation started by the city by painting the interior walls, laying tile and carpet, and installing panelling if they wished, Moore said.

To qualify, the prospective homeowner would have to be a public housing tenant paying more than more than $250) a month in rent to the city. Since the amount of rent is based on income, only about 700 of the city's 9,000 public housing families earn enough to qualify. Most tenants pay less than $100 a month rent, Moore said.

Officials at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development have withheld their approval of the plan and asked city officials to prove to them that the more traditional approach -- remodelling the property for rental to public housing families -- is unworkable.

HUD's Clyde McHenry, the public housing chief, said his department wants more information because there is a shortage of public housing here.

The two-story cinderblock-and-stucco white homes in the block between 53rd, 55th, Blaine and Dix Streets NE., were built in 1947.

By 1962 they had "deteriorated to a point where [some units] had been abandoned," according to a HUD spokesman.

The unsightly buildings "aroused community concern to such an extent" that HUD, which had acquired them through foreclosure, sold them to the city for public housing, the spokesman said.

The city borrowed $1.1 million from HUD for rehabilitation and by 1965 about 600 people had moved in, according to city housing officials.

Seven years later the buildings were a shambles again. "We got modernization funds to rehab it again and the [community] residents didn't want it," said a former high-ranking city housing official. "It should never have been built because you could never make it attractive."

In 1976, after most of the tenants had been transferred to other projects, the city, reacting to continued citizen opposition to the proposed rehabilitation, asked HUD for permission to demolish the buildings.

A year later HUD said no. Although the buildings were "in substantial disrepair it was felt that the pressing need for large bedroom units justified the cost involved in rehab," a HUD spokesman said.

The project then went into limbo.

Community residents say they opposed any more public housing because their area already is saturated with low cost housing. The Lincoln Heights and Richardson projects, totalling 630 units, adjoin Deanwood and the East Capitol project -- with 577 units -- is a few blocks to the east.

"I don't think they should be projects any more," said Lorene Dempsey, who lives across the street. "When they [public housing tenants] move in an area the majority of them don't keep them [the houses] up. They just run through them. I think there should be private owners."

"They should just tear them down, they have so many problems with them," said Juanita Norris, who lives a few doors from Mrs. Dempsey. "They could do something nice over there . . . . When I go out I don't even look that way, it looks so horrible."