Several Washington area jurisdictions have been sitting on millions of dollars of public housing renovation funds for more than three years and the federal government has warned them to spend the funds by the end of the year or lose them.

The District government has failed to spend $8.8 million, according to HUD officials, although about a third of the city's 12,000 public housing units are in need of repair, the number of families on the waiting list is close to 13,000 and families generally wait at least five years and usually longer for an apartment.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, after months of informally urging the six jurisdictions to spend the money, sent a letter in July warning that "funds allocated prior to 1982" and not spent by the end of the year would be reclaimed by the federal government, said Margaret White, manager of HUD's D.C. field office.

Other local jurisdictions that received the HUD warning were Alexandria, with more than $1 million as of Oct. 31; Rockville, $860,000; College Park, $288,000; Glenarden (a small municipality in Prince George's County) $173,000, and Prince George's County, $1,700.

The city has asked HUD for an extension on $6.4 million and federal officials said they had not reviewed that request and were uncertain if it would be granted.

"This is the first time we have made a conscious decision that all funds not obligated by contract will be recaptured," White said yesterday. "Requests for extensions will be given serious consideration. However, the money is not supposed to sit four or five years after allocation."

White criticized District housing officials, noting that some of the Comprehensive Improvement Assistance Program (CIAP) money "was allocated as long ago as 1978, 1979."

CIAP money can be used to pay for repairs to buildings and grounds and for cost-saving improvements such as energy conservation programs and management assistance.

Housing authorities could receive extensions, "If a property is tied up in litigation, if the delay is because of some HUD activity, or if they submitted a plan . . . for using the funds and it was approved before the issuance of the rule in June of 1985," White said.

"We expect the work for which these monies were allocated to be completed within two or three years," White said. "Sometimes money has been granted for emergency situations. Certainly, if it was an emergency . . . the work should have been completed. It is for that reason that we feel the policy is fair."

The District has cited litigation at several projects including Arthur Capper and Fort Dupont Dwellings as the major reason for the delay in spending the funds.

For example, housing department spokesman Oliver Cromwell said, a contractor, dismissed from one project because of a failure to complete work on time, has since sued the city.

Of the remaining $2.2 million, Cromwell said, "We have all intentions of obligating all of the money by Dec. 31, 1985."

"We have a massive modernization program going on . . . and trying to make it all go is difficult," Cromwell said.

The District, the city's largest landlord with 12,000 units and sometimes cited as one of the worst, has completely renovated two projects since 1981 and has four undergoing major repairs.

However, Mayor Marion Barry's ambitious public housing renovation program, which called for fixing up one-third of the city's 52 projects by 1984, is now running two to three years behind schedule.

In addition, the District has 1,739 vacant public housing units, 557 needing minor to moderate repairs and 1,182 needing major rehabilitation, Cromwell said. The CIAP funds were earmarked to modernize 778 units, he said.

Rockville also has asked for an extension until March 1986, citing litigation and HUD delays.

Sandra Crewe, executive director of the Rockville City Housing Authority, said the city's amount of unobligated funds was down to $400,000, and after resubmitting proposals, she said, "We are feeling very confident."

Officials from other jurisdictions could not be reached for comment.

While the District bears part of the blame for failing to use its modernization money, Patty Mullahy, an attorney for the National Housing Law Project, said, HUD's latest move "seems part of their big effort to get out of the business of housing poor people.

"HUD should work with the authorities to see why the money isn't being spent, to see what the problem is and to help alleviate it, rather than taking away the only resources these cities have," said Mullahy, who represents public housing tenants.

"Taking away the money is only going to make public housing worse in the District," Mullahy added.

But, Mullahy complained, "Vacancies labeled as needing minor rehabilitation should have been repaired and put back on the market long ago. The turnaround time just to get an emergency application processed for someone needing housing is eight months."