IN 1986 the Fair Housing Consortium used federal funds to expose racial discrimination in rental housing in the Washington area. The consortium conducted "tests" -- sending white persons and blacks separately to the same rental offices to seek apartments. Although the testers had similar credentials, the consortium found that whites received preferential treatment from rental agents most of the time in the District and its suburbs. In all, the consortium was able to conduct 280 tests.

The same group, now known as the Fair Housing Council of Greater Washington, has released figures from its latest survey; it consisted of only 111 tests. Why so few? In 1986 the group received a $200,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Despite the organization's valuable work, its application for a renewal of the grant was turned down; HUD officials made such grants in other parts of the country, but this area lost out in the competition for scarce funds. That meant that in its most recent tests, the Fair Housing Council had only $30,000 -- from court settlements with real estate agents accused of discrimination in the 1986 survey -- to continue its work. Local funding is very important. In 1986, not counting the testers, the council had three full-time staff people, attorneys, paralegals and volunteers. In 1987, it had a full-time staff of one.

There are plans to take up some of the slack. The District of Columbia is planning a media campaign to boost fair housing. Alexandria is planning to do testing on its own. But more needs to be done. Other human rights offices, says Council Director Ellen Shogan, are still "considering the need."

In area rental offices, little has changed. Black testers seeking apartments were told that apartments wouldn't be available for some time; whites were told that units were available immediately. A white person was shown a furnished model apartment in one complex. The black person was shown an apartment in the midst of renovation and told that it was the only one available.

The Washington area's human rights offices say they still don't have the funding and manpower needed to do testing. That's a sad commentary in a region where local government budgets involve a total of about $5 billion. In the absence of federal funding, local human rights offices and local governments bear the burden of ensuring that fair housing standards are maintained. What else does it take to prove the need?