It is extremely unfortunate that Arlingtonians must consider by referendum a future course that, were it adopted, would neither guarantee substantial public housing assistance to needy families nor protect the rest of the community from bureaucratic intrusion, duplicative efforts and a possible financial burden of unknown proportions.

The powers of the housing authority would become frightening. In effect, the authority would be self-perpetuating. Voters could not abolish it. It would have broad powers not only to rehabilitate old property but also to initiate construction of new low-income housing projects. Also, it could exercise the power of eminent domain. And it could purchase and clear areas that it considers to be slums.

Construction, once land purchase, planning and zoning regulations were cleared by the county board, could be accomplished without citizen participation or public hearing. The purchase of land, the ownership and operation of housing projects -- even an investigation of housing conditions anywhere in the county -- would be solely within the housing authority purview.

To finance projects, the housing authority could sell bonds and, with the proceeds, could purchase land and build houses that it would own. Rental money supposedly would pay off the bonded indebtedness. No voter approval would be required. Yet experience in other jurisdictions indicates that government financial help has been needed for operations to continue.

The independence of the housing authority is one of its most striking -- and alarming -- aspects. The county board, except as indicated above, would have no power to control actions of the authority, nor could the county manager or the voters have any voice in determining its actions. Commissioners of the authority, once appointed by the county board, would be subject to no higher authority.

Criticism of the concept is widespread and substantiated by what has happened elsewhere. In Alexandria, the housing authority has required an infusion of federal funds to continue. In Fairfax County, former Redevelopment and Housing Authority Commissioner John Kershenstein states baldly that "the powers of a housing authority are so expansive, it can almost become a government within a government."

Supporters of the proposal may say that agreements can be made between the county board and the housing authority providing assurances of cooperation. Still, functions and procedures set up by state law cannot be changed by the county board. Regardless of pious vows from housing authority advocates, the county board could not force the authority to follow agreed-upon action.

Most people, weighing compassion with reason, must wonder whether there is not some more rational way to help needy families. Well, there is -- and it's a way being employed right now: Arlington already has a variety of public and private agencies dedicated to providing low- and moderate-income housing. For example, the Virginia Housing Development Authority works cooperatively with the Arlington Housing Services Division. Besides, it is reported that Arlington spends more than $6 million annually in local, state and federal funds to assist about 3,000 low-income households. Not surprisingly, the charge has been made that Arlington already is carrying more than its fair share of subsidized housing.

If more help is needed, it should come from within the established framework of government, working with agencies in the private sector but placing legal responsibility where it should lie -- in the hands of elected officials responsible to the voters.

A vote for the housing authority would be a repudiation of our democratic process. It would only serve to weaken our self-rule, threaten the rights of our citizens and sidetrack efforts to provide adequate housing through responsible methods. For the good of all concerned, the proposal should be soundly defeated.