A nonprofit agency formally began the renovation yesterday of a vacant building in Northwest Washington that will become Lazarus House, providing long-term, affordable housing for some of the city's homeless men and women.

The $3.7 million project is believed to be the first in which the Washington business community, foundations and individuals have combined on a long-term solution for homelessness, said David Erickson, president of the nonprofit agency, Samaritan Inns Inc.

Once it is operating at capacity, Lazarus House is expected to support itself from rents received. It will require no additional funding to cover its $210,000 yearly operating budget.

"We wanted to try to create housing supported by the community itself," said K. Killian Noe, Lazarus House program director, at a groundbreaking ceremony attended by Jack Kemp, secretary of housing and urban development.

Gifts from the private sector and charities total $2 million. The agency is still seeking patrons to cover the rest of the cost. Developers A. James Clark of the Clark Construction Group and Oliver T. Carr Jr. of the Oliver Carr Co. each donated $500,000 to the project.

Lazarus House, at 2523 14th St. NW, is scheduled to open in April 1991. It will offer housing to 80 men and women who have previously lived in Samaritan Inns' group homes or similar establishments. Samaritan Inns runs three group homes in the District: two homes for men on Mozart Place NW and a home for pregnant women and new mothers at 1422 Harvard St. NW.

Residents "must have established six months of sobriety, have a commitment to drug- and alcohol-free living and to living cooperatively with others," Noe said. They also must be able to pay rent of about $240 a month.

Erickson says residents are expected to have jobs, and should be able to pay the monthly rent if they are making $6 to $7 an hour.

In a neighborhood that has been plagued with drugs and crime, Catherine Hammonds said she's glad Lazarus House will be there. "I'm glad to see something positive happening," she said. "I'm even more glad to see people bringing something to help strengthen the community."

But Dorothy A. Brizill of the Columbia Heights Neighborhood Coalition said her organization is concerned about the number of community facilities already in the area.

"Within 500 feet, there are already eight of these facilities," Brizill said. "Having an inordinate number of these homes takes away from the residential stock and has a tremendous impact on the residential character of the Columbia Heights community."

Lazarus House will provide an unusual type of single-room occupancy housing in which residents are grouped in six- to 10-person clusters and share a kitchen, living and dining room, laundry and bathrooms while having individual bedrooms.

Establishing a sense of community is "critical for people who are struggling," Erickson said. By providing cluster housing and access to several social service programs, Lazarus House "has designed into the structure a sense of family and community," he said.