Mayor Marion Barry, under growing criticism for delays in renovating District public housing units, has suspended the formal competitive bidding process and relaxed affirmative action requirements for firms contracting with the city to repair dilapidated vacant units.

Of the city's 11,684 public housing units, more than 1,900 are vacant and in need of repairs, while more than 13,000 people are on a public housing waiting list. In publicly issuing an order last week that applies to 550 of the vacant units, Barry said it would be "impracticable" to adhere to formal bidding procedures and policies and still reduce the time it takes to restore vacant units.

Madeline Petty, the director of the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development, said yesterday that the mayor's order will expedite a new agency plan to repair 550 units that were vacant as of Dec. 20 and require minor to major repairs to make them habitable. The remaining 1,350 vacant units need extensive renovation.

Also under the department's new fast-track plan, the estimated 40 public housing units that become vacant each month, for one reason or another, will be repaired in less time. For the first time, the city will use two private construction management firms to oversee the repair work, Davis Construction Co. and Construction Control Services Corp.

It will cost the city an estimated $15 million to fix the 550 units by a target date of September, according to Petty, although the city currently has budgeted only $3.2 million of that amount. Petty said she intends to seek the additional funds from the city and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Petty conceded that her department in the past "took an inordinately long time" to repair some vacant units and that some units "might have stood vacant for a year." By changing the contracting procedures, she said, the department will create a large pool of qualified private contractors who can be used on short notice to repair small groups of vacant units within six weeks.

This new approach follows a recent warning from HUD that the city could lose $8.8 million in federal funds to pay for the public housing units requiring extensive renovation unless the money is earmarked for specific projects.

Petty said a final report to be submitted to HUD this month will show that all of the money has been obligated.

Barry, who made housing a top priority in his last two mayoral campaigns, will have to defend his housing program this year when he is expected to seek reelection.

City Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4) said that while she is concerned that some contractors could be denied an opportunity to bid on some city housing contracts under the mayor's order, in this case housing needs should take precedence.

"I think the mayor is in a difficult political situation and he needs to address it," said Jarvis, chairman of the Housing and Community Development Committee. "The people who need housing are in desperate need. It is not clear that this is the solution to the problem, but it is a reasonable approach."

Richard Gladstein, a lawyer for Neighborhood Legal Services, said he supports any action to repair vacant units, noting that a number of his firm's clients pay more than 50 percent of their income for rent and want to move into public housing.

"It is tragic that this city has allowed a vacancy rate to remain as high as it is," said Gladstein. "If the resources are available, there is no reason they shouldn't be able to get all of the units back on the market."

The 550 vacant units affected by Barry's order require such repairs as painting, plastering and some electrical and plumbing work.

Under the housing department's new contracting procedures, firms will have until Jan. 15 to submit construction proposals and negotiate a set unit repair price for 247 of the 550 vacant units in the department's first construction phase. As additional units needing repairs become vacant, work orders will be assigned to firms included on the list of qualified contractors.

The 247 units include 81 vacant units at scattered sites and complexes in Northwest and Northeast, including 24 units at Kentucky Courts, six units at Sibley Plaza, and six at Harvard Towers. The other 166 units are in Southeast and Southwest, including 58 units at Arthur Capper Senior, 25 units at Highland Addition and 15 at Sheridan Terrace.