IN A HOUSING market as tight and as expensive as Washington's, it is easy to overlook the steady work of groups such as MANNA, Jubilee Housing and Samaritan Inns. Their successes in rehabilitating apartments or transforming vacant shells into usable homes are measured in such incremental terms that their efforts can seem insignificant. Consider their work as a whole, however, and the numbers begin to add up. Over the past few years, roughly 30 private, nonprofit groups operating in Washington have produced more than 700 new homes and apartments for people who could not otherwise afford a place of their own. Other groups, which serve as nonprofit lenders, are helping poor tenants buy the buildings in which they live.

The D.C. government's own efforts in this regard have been marked mostly by admirable sentiment. City officials have poured millions of local dollars into federally subsidized public housing, yet thousands of those units remain vacant. The city's rent assistance program has also had its problems -- with rents paid for tenants who have either died or moved. In these tough fiscal times, much more efficiency in the expenditure of housing funds is required, and that should bring the nonprofit housing groups into an even greater prominence.

The latest effort by Samaritan Inns provides a good example. The group has raised $2.2 million from the local business community and from area foundations to renovate "Lazarus House," on 14th Street in Northwest. It will provide 80 units of low-cost housing for single men and single mothers who will pay rents that they can afford. These groups also provide counseling, tips on how to set up and stick to a household budget, and referrals to job training classes and addiction treatment centers.

Mayor-elect Sharon Pratt Dixon says the nonprofit housing groups have been ignored for too long. She plans to provide them with more assistance in building or renovating housing for the city's poor. This also fits in with recent federal housing legislation, signed into law by President Bush last month, which will provide federal block grants to state and local governments to meet local housing needs.

That money will be well spent if it can be used by groups with a proven performance record such as MANNA and Samaritan Inns. They are doing more than simply providing shelter. They are helping the homeless regain independence and self-respect.