The Department of Housing and Urban Development announced on Tuesday that it was initiating a "major policy change" by giving federal rent subsidy and public housing money directly to "hard-pressed" cities that have been competing unsuccessfully with their suburbs for the funds.

But in the face of mounting criticism yesterday from representatives of the nation's counties - of which the suburbs form a significant part - HUD officials were saying that Tuesday's "major policy change" was "really nothing new."

The criticism that led to the apparent attempt to downplay the announcement was spawned by fears of county officials that the "new" distribution formula would channel more federal housing money into central cities at the expenses of surrounding jurisdictions.

Those fears were prompted by statements from HUD officials, including Secretary Patricia Roberts Harris, who said the direct funding plan should encourage builder interest in meeting the housing needs of the central city rather than the more diffuse needs of an entire metropolitan area.

"The central city will, for the first time, know what it's going to get; and this, we believe, will encourage builders to be more responsive to the housing needs of the central cities," Harris said.

An official of the Washington-based National Association of Counties (NACO) said yesterday that Harris' announcement alarmed the organization and its constituents.

"It polarizes the suburbs and the cities, which is no good," she said. "No matter how you slice it, it looks to me that the suburbs and other areas would receive a smaller share of the amount of money that was appropriated. I don't see how you can work this without taking money away from those [suburban and county] areas."

The NACO official said that by concentrating more federal, low-income housing subsidy money in the central cities. HUD would appear to be going against its pledge to work for the ethnic and economic integration of the suburbs. Besides, she said, "the needs of distressed people don't stop at city border lines."

HUD officials vigorously denied yesterday that they were turning their backs on controversial attempts to build low-income housing projects in the sburbs, or that they were in any was trying to favor central cities over surrounding jurisdictions.

"Basically, nothing really changes; it's really not a new (fund distribution) formula," said one high ranking official, who asked not to be quoted by name.

"But we've used this formula in other areas of the country, off and on, for over a period of years.For example, New York City was always considered separately from its overall metropolitan area" in the granting of federal housing subsidies, the official said.

Moreover, said the HUD official, if a central city is incapabale of using the targeted money, "it'll flow out to the surrounding jurisdictions anyway."

The HUD official said he could not say the central cities would get more money under the direct-funding plan, but added: "There's no way I can't say it's not right to say we may be taking some money from the counties to give to the cities."

Indeed, there is reason to believe that all, if not most, of the $174 million already set aside for "hard pressed" cities in the direct-funding plan is "old money". An official in the HUD Chicago regional office said yesterday that the $19.31 million Chicago is scheduled to get under the "new" plan is the same amount the city would have received anyway.

That may come as surprise to John Gunther, executive director of the Washington-based U.S Conference of Mayors, which represents the mayors of the nation's largest cities.

"We expect to get more money for the central cities under the new formula," Gunther said yesterday. "That's the whole intention of the thing . . . If we don't get more money, there's been a mistake in the formula."