COMES NOW Mayor Barry with a request for $180 million in federal housing funds over the next five years to make large-scale repairs on 60 percent of the city's 11,000 public housing units. He won't get it all and he knows it, but it's another sign of new energy on the housing front.

In his first campaign for mayor, Mr. Barry railed at the number of boarded-up city-owned housing units around town and promised to tear the boards off. Particularly in the public housing projects, which are the bulk of what the city owns, it turned out to be a lot harder than that early rhetoric suggested. As late as a couple of years ago the city's housing program still seemed bogged down. But now there is evidence of renewed energy.

A basic complaint was that it took forever to repair public housing units. At one point federal auditors said the average down time between when one tenant left and another could move in was 20 months. The modernization program under which whole projects -- the many older ones in the city -- are rebuilt was also in hopeless arrears, so poorly run that the city lost U.S. Housing and Urban Development modernization funds because it failed to spend them. In 1986, HUD gave the District no modernization funds at all. That's what Mr. Barry's request suggests he is now ready to reverse.

Alphonso Jackson, the new director of public housing, says poor planning was part of the problem with modernization projects, a weak chain of command another part. Accountability was spread so thin among administrators that no one had responsibility. He promises now to start firing weak administrators instead.

As an example of how far things had gone, he says that as much as $7,000 a week in equipment, including even refrigerators and other appliances, had been disappearing from the city's warehouse. A new security system is being installed.

Delinquent public housing tenants owed the city $3.5 million in rent, but there were only 10 evictions last year. Mr. Jackson said he has increased the number of evictions. The potential targets include 45 employees of the city's own housing department. They owe as much as $5,000 in rent. They'll pay or go. In the future, tenants will also be screened to see that they keep their units in good condition, which will take pressure off the repair schedule.

None of this is as easy as it sounds. But all this stir at the top is how it has to start. Housing is the crippling problem for this city's poor, as it is in other cities. Many public housing projects around the nation are in an advanced state of decay. HUD's modernization budget has also been cut from $1.4 billion in fiscal year 1985 to only $760 million this year. But HUD should give serious consideration to Mr. Barry's new request. It looks as if positive changes have been made.