THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT has just given more aid to 22 cities for urban homesteading, a program that HUD recently called "promising" and which many people consider a real success. So far homesteading efforts do seem to be working well. The reasons are worth reflecting on. They show why so many other inner-city housing programs are in more difficulties.

To start with, homesteading has great popular appeal. While it involves pretty big public subsidies, its name evokes the image of modern pioneers who challenge the urban frontier and, largely by their own efforts, transform abandoned houses into safe, attractive homes. What's more, these individual efforts don't just rescue individual properties; they are intended to rescue and stabilize whole neighborhoods.

While most returns on neighborhood improvements aren't in yet, the home-revival aspect of the program does seem sound. It is important to keep in mind, however, that the actual effort is much more modest than its mystique. As of Nov. 1, according to HUD, the 23 cities involved in the first round of the federal program had been given t total of just 1,503 vacant HUD-owned homes; 1,043 of these had been transferred to homesteaders, and rehabilitation of 607 was complete. Last month's additional aid, $5.8 million in properties and about $6 million for low-interest rehabilitation loans, is very small in comparison with most federal housing programs. (In the District, under a similiar plan, 19 homesteads have been rebuilt and 27 more will be parceled out soon.)

Besides being smaller in scale than the original homesteading program of a century ago, the modern version requires more continuing involvement by government. Indeed, the whole effort turns on the skill of each local government in picking properties, selecting homesteaders of modest but adequate means, assembling public and private financing and providing good advice for homesteaders who run into problems. Since the first programs began as local initiatives in Wilmington, Baltimore and Philadelphia, each participating city has devised a slightly different approach. HUD's hand in the demonstration programs has been commendably light.

Homesteading is distinctive - smaller and more flexible than the average housing-aid effort, and probably easier as well. Each local version has been practically handcrafted, and the sponsors have been able to select homesteaders who are least likely to fail. (In the District, there were 1,427 applicants for the next 27 homes; of those, 300 to 400 have been found fully qualified to take part in the forthcoming lottery.)

Is this program so different, then, that little of general application can be learned from it? Not at all. Various cities' innovations and experience in mobilizing public and private resources are already being put to wider use. The city of Baltimore, for instance, has just started an intriguing "shopsteading" program by turning 15 empty stores over to small-scale entrepreneurs and providing financial help to get then launched. Beyond prompting ventures like that, homesteading shows the general value of fostering local initiatives, keeping federal dictates to a minimum and "thinking small." That last point, in fact, may be the most important and sobering of all. For if this effort, with all its advantages, has brought together only a relative handful of modest-income families and available homes, the unmet needs, not just in dollars but also in terms of public patience, commitment and care, loom even larger than before.