U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Samuel R. Pierce Jr. directed one of his top housing officials yesterday to work personally with the District of Columbia's troubled public housing program to try to shape it up after years of mismanagement.

The area and regional offices of the Department of Housing and Urban Development had been responsible for overseeing the operations of the city's federally subsidized public housing. Officials in HUD's headquarters have stepped in because of the city's failure to resolve problems pointed out in a 1984 HUD audit and because of recent reports of serious maintenance and operational problems.

Pierce "has asked that the most technically proficient people in public housing work directly with city officials," said Deborah G. Dean, Pierce's executive assistant.

James Baugh, acting HUD assistant secretary for public and Indian housing, will work with Mayor Marion Barry and city housing officials to resolve the serious problems that HUD has found repeatedly in audits over a number of years, Dean said. HUD and city officials "are going to talk eight hours a day every day until the problem is solved," she said.

Barry said in a telephone interview that he welcomed the change in HUD authority.

"I'm glad we were able to raise it to the highest level," said Barry. "It always helps to be in the national office, because you can get more done . . . . We never said we had all the answers."

The mayor said that the city could force the federal government to take over the operation of public housing properties because the federal government owns them, but he said that he has decided that to do that would be "irresponsible."

He said that most of about 70 problems identified in the 1984 audit have been resolved.

In a recent closed-door meeting with her staff, Madeline M. Petty, director of the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development, listed a number of serious problems, including the department's inability to account fully for $1 million in refrigerators and ranges purchased for public housing. She told her staff of reports that some maintenance workers had used drugs and alcohol on the job and had "fraternized" with tenants who then got better services than other residents.

The District and HUD for years have been negotiating what to do about the city's difficulties in running its public housing, which gets more than half of its funding from the federal government.

An August 1984 HUD audit found that the city's public housing agency was losing millions of dollars a year by failing to collect back rent and not evicting nonpaying tenants. It found that the city had no preventive maintenance program in the projects and was slow to restore vacant units so that new families could move into them.

Of 11,732 public housing units in the District, more than 16 percent are vacant, according to city figures. The city's waiting list for public housing has more than 13,000 names on it.

The audit found that the city had lost millions of dollars in interest by failing to invest federal advances of grants properly, and it warned that the District might have to return $1.1 million to HUD because the city had not performed energy audits on most projects and had not monitored fuel consumption.

It noted that many of the same problems were found in three earlier audits dating to 1970 but that the city had taken little corrective action.

When the audit was made public in September 1984, then-D.C. Housing Director James E. Clay said the city had a strategy and plan for correcting the deficiencies.

Marilyn Crawford, spokeswoman for the city housing department, said yesterday that the city has submitted a response to the HUD audit that addresses each of the problems and has been waiting for a reply from federal officials on whether proposed actions are acceptable.

Several options for dealing with continuing deficiencies outlined in the audit had been developed within HUD, but when they were brought to Pierce's attention yesterday he decided that the best approach would be a "cooperative partnership" with the city, Dean said.

While theoretically HUD could take over the city's public housing authority or cut off funds, neither of these options is practical, Dean said.

"We do not have the resources to run the public housing authority here, nor do we think we should do it," Dean said. "We could cut off funding, but in the end you would just be hurting the people you serve." The idea of taking control of the housing authority "flies in the face of our what our entire administration philosophy is," she added.

Baugh is to look personally at the city's proposed corrective action and to "see what else needs to be done and what help they need," she said.