TO A COUPLE of District women who have pined to be homeowners for years but have never been able to afford it, the sight of those vacant houses at University Place and Euclid Street NW was just too much. The two women and a few compatriots, singing "We want houses. We won't wait," ignored No Trespassing signs and began cleaning up the two city-owned houses for themselves. Of course, this sort of thing is not legal and probably not safe either. For once, the District government's housing department took quick action. It called the police and had the two women arrested.

Still, one can sympathize with the intent of one of the women, who said, "The dope dealers go into these vacant houses and shoot up, and I could be living in there and preserving the property. It is being wasted, and I need it." The D.C. Council largely agrees. Based on efforts by council members Frank Smith and Charlene Drew Jarvis, it passed a "homesteading" bill this month. The guidelines have not been fully worked out, but the bill is meant to turn abandoned and dilapidated houses and apartments over to city residents willing to make repairs and live in them for five years. These are properties that the city has taken over because of property tax delinquencies or because the owner allowed them to fall into disrepair. They could be bought for $250, and the buyers could get repair loans of $10,000 that they would not have to pay back unless they sold the property. Half of the units in the program would have to go to low- and moderate-income people -- a good idea in a city where affordable housing is so sparse.

The housing department said the Euclid Street homes were slated for renovation. Fine. But neighbors say those homes have been vacant for years, except for the addicts and vagrants, and the department now admits that the homes have fallen into such disrepair that they should be demolished. Okay, then tear them down. But the city ought to do something with these properties over which it has jurisdiction. Knowing how long the waiting list is for public housing and knowing how scarce affordable housing is, it ought to act to get abandoned homes into use. Then folks will be less inclined to take a sledgehammer to them themselves.

Trespassing, the housing department told those women, is a crime. Isn't it also a crime for the city to allow buildings to sit vacant when there are people who need them and are willing to rehabilitate them?