David I. Gilmore is standing in front of a room full of 50 employees at the Knox Hill public housing complex in Southeast Washington, sleeves rolled up, collar unbuttoned, tie askew, delivering his stump speech with missionary zeal.

They doubtless have never seen anybody quite like him, especially at the downtrodden D.C. Department of Public and Assisted Housing, where 14 directors have come and gone during the last 17 years.

But the revolving door, this stocky little guy with the beard and shaggy hair assured them one day last week, "is shut."

"The public housing program in the nation's capital should be the model for the nation, not the whipping boy for the nation," Gilmore declares to a chorus of amens from the troops.

"We should be, we can be and we are going to be the best public housing agency in the United States. I know that. And my job is to convince you to come along for the ride."

And so Gilmore, 52, late of the Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco and Seattle housing authorities, has arrived in Washington as a man with a mission, here not only to rescue the department as court-appointed housing receiver but also to help save public housing in America.

"How ridiculous it is that this program should be a drain on everything else," he said in an interview, explaining that the agency's troubles have come to symbolize what's wrong with public housing in the eyes of many members of Congress.

"They look in their own back yard and this is what they see -- they see failure," he said. "And I've got an obligation to eradicate that failure."

He worries that it may be too late, what with the Republican majority slashing federal housing subsidies and contemplating the end of public housing in its current form.

"But they don't have a better idea yet," Gilmore said. "I'm late, but I'm not too late. We've got to hustle."

It is midmorning at the housing agency's 1133 North Capitol St. NE headquarters on Gilmore's fifth day on the job as D.C. housing receiver. He already has shaken up the staff, fired an indicted employee awaiting trial and promised the agency's 24,000 tenants that they all are going to have heat when winter comes.

He has three stump speeches with different groups of employees scheduled later in the day, including the one at Knox Hill in Ward 8. But now he has the agency's 10 top maintenance and construction officials around a conference table to talk about how he's going to deliver on that promise about heat.

"I have put my neck out a mile," he says, "so I'm telling you all right now, unequivocally, that I have announced that one of my earliest tests of this receivership is whether I can deliver on this commitment. And I don't fail tests. So in order for me not to fail, you can't fail."

He tells them he will ask D.C. Superior Court Judge Steffen W. Graae -- who named him receiver -- for an emergency order to dispense with competitive bidding so heating contractors can be hired quickly.

He tells them he will run interference with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. And he sends them back to the drawing board with a strategy for spending $146 million in backlogged federal modernization funds over the next two years.

His staff had allocated only $8 million to pay for preventive maintenance work in the agency's developments as a complement to much more extensive renovations in a few selected developments.

But Gilmore wants much, much more targeted for basics, not glitz.

"If the faucets drip, we fix 'em," he says. "If the cabinet doors come off, we fix 'em. If the floor tiles are missing, we fix 'em."

The meeting -- his second of the day -- runs for an intense hour and ends collegially when the new boss says with a big grin, "You guys got a lot of work to do -- a lot of work."

Charles Massey, a labor foreman at the Valley Green housing complex, says: "I think he's a man of his word. I believed everything he said. If he says something is going to happen, it's going to happen. In the past, people came in and made promises and nothing changed. But I think Mr. Gilmore is about his word. He came and he was point-blank. He's made change -- he's done it in other cities."

A native of Brooklyn, David Gilmore graduated in 1968 from the University of Pennsylvania with a master's degree in, of all things, social work.

Jeffrey K. Lines, a friend now serving as public housing receiver in Kansas City, Mo., says that's what Gilmore really is deep in his heart, a social worker.

Another admirer, former San Francisco mayor Art Agnos, has slightly amended that description, recently calling Gilmore a man possessed of "a Peace Corps heart with linebacker eyes."

By 1980, the year he first went to work for the Boston Housing Authority, Gilmore was working as executive assistant to the president of the University of Massachusetts.

Since he'd done some housing work in Philadelphia after graduate school, the university's plan at the time was to lend him for a year to Boston's deeply troubled housing agency, which had just been placed in court-ordered receivership.

He ended up staying for nearly a decade as the agency's second-in-command.

"The stuff gets in your blood," he says. "What was really appealing was fixing a broken public program."

From Boston, he was off to San Francisco in 1989, where he took the city's woefully managed public housing agency off HUD's troubled list in three years.

But two years into his tenure, Mayor Frank Jordan, Agnos's successor, became a vocal critic who tried to fire Gilmore but never could. Jordan didn't like his management style. HUD, in a 1992 audit, criticized Gilmore for spending $53,000 in federal funds over two years for "unallowable entertainment." Gilmore says the expenditures were legitimate. And by the time he finally left for Seattle in August 1993, the consensus in San Francisco was that he had been effective but controversial.

The offer from Graae to be Washington's housing receiver came after only a year in Seattle. But by that point, Gilmore explains, he had spent so much time "mouthing off" about the disastrous national ripple effect of D.C.'s horrid public housing agency that he had no choice but to accept.

"I've come to the District," Gilmore says, "to either put up or shut up."

And so he stands up in front of a room full of blue-shirted maintenance workers, groundskeepers and property managers and tells them he'll spare them the speech about how a "new day" has dawned in the housing agency.

"It'll be a new day," he says, "when we make it a new day together."

He plays good cop. He plays bad cop. He plays the stern parent, the wise teacher, the policy wonk, the self-described public housing "junkie."

And he plays them all pretty well, given the response he gets from what started out as a pretty cynical house.

At one point, after Gilmore talks about the importance of groundskeeping, a groundskeeper stands up and says, "You make my self-esteem come up to a whole new level."

And why not? Gilmore tells them all that they're "the future of public housing in the District of Columbia" and says all of his emphasis is going to be in the field, where they work, not at headquarters.

"I don't know of any public housing resident who lives at 1133 North Capitol Street," he says. "I don't know of public housing residents who send their children to school from 1133 North Capitol Street or celebrate their holidays at 1133 North Capitol Street or mourn their dead at 1133 North Capitol Street."

But Gilmore's plaudits are always followed by Gilmore's demands. With him, everything is a two-way street. He says he demands eight hours' work for eight hours' pay.

And he ends his sermon with a serious message that leaves the room in stunned silence.

"My integrity is worth more to me than anything else I own," he says. "And I will not give that up easily. I'll die protecting it. So during my watch, I expect from my employees, my staff, that same integrity and honesty. You may not take materials home with you. You may not take money that belongs to this agency. If you ever slip from that stand, just one time, I'm going to be the most ferocious opponent you have ever seen. I'll eat you alive. Now, take me at my word -- and that's the end of that." CAPTION: David I. Gilmore, the court-appointed housing receiver, speaks to personnel at the Knox Hill complex.