Two months ago Housing and Urban Development Secretary Patricia Roberts Harris was reading news report describing her as aggressive, abrasive, irascrible and generally impossible to get along with.

"As you can see," she told some friends at the time," "having a high office hasn't changed me a bit."

What a changed, however, is the kind of comment you hear about her today. The reports then suggested she was on her way out of the Cabinet. No one knowledgeable about her or her agency thinks that now.

"She's the best HUD secretary ever," asserts Rep. Henry S. Reuss (D - Wis), chairman of the House Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs Committee.

"She's done an excellent job fighting for a department that has long been neglected," says a key White House aide.

"We were strongly opposed to her at first, but now we grade her extremely high," adds Leon M. Weiner, president of National Housing Conference, which lobbies for builders, bankers and housing authorities.

And Bernard Hillenbrand, who, as executive director of the National Association of Counties, is staunchly fighting her urban policies, has a kind word: "She has a fine intellect and towering integrity. She's one of the bright spots in the administration."

The generally favorable reaction does not mean that all critics of the 53-year-old HUD secretary have suddenly changed their minds. Hallenbrand, for example, can still manage a deft barb:

"If she has an open mind, she would not have give you that impression. She has a singleness of purpose that is awesome to behold."

One high official who has survived some fierce interagency scraps with her says, "She's not the most temperate, politic person in the world. She very defensive of her turf, more so than most Cabinet secretaries."

Yet interviews with more than 30 persons in government and in HUD's constituencies outside government showed agreement with the assessment of John Gunther, director of the U.S. Conference of Mayors:

"There's no evidence she's in any trouble at all. She's probably got broader support today than she had a year ago."

Some Harris backers suggest that with President Carter's popularity dipping and with criticism coming from black leaders over high minority unemployment, the White House may have quietly passed the word to cool the insiders' rhetoric against the administration's highest-ranking black woman.

Several White House aides said they know of no such instructions, and one official noted that anti-Harris attacks came just after the administration's bruising, interncine battle over the fiscal 1979 budget. "She's a hard-edged person, and people get angry with her," he said. "Now time has passed, and they're not so angry anymore."

Probably her most striking achievement has been to redefine HUD as an urban agency. "There's been a major turnaround in its attitude toward the cities," says Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young.

In it's relatively short, life, the department, as its name implies, has been the battleground for constituencies whose interests do not always coincide - the housing industry and the cities, the suburban middle-class and the downtown poor, the developers who get housing subsidies and the people who live in subsidized housing.

Harris may be getting good marks around town because she seems to be balancing the contituencies - the trick being to help the "housers" while stressing the "urbans." She has gone up and down the country preaching the plight of the cities, especially, those in danger of falling apart and those with large numbers of poor - and at the same time she has increased subsidized housing production almost four times.

For most of its history HUD has tilted toward the industry.

The agency's first secretary, Robert C. Weaver, launched Lyndon B. Johnson's ill-fated "model cities" program to funnel federal money into inner city areas when he ran HUD from 1966 to1968. But the fledgling department failed to shake its roots in the old Housing and Home Finance Agency, which Weaver had headed.

After Richard M. Nixon came to office, HUD's subsidized housing production shot up as a result of Secretary George Romney's go-go implementation of an LBJ legacy, the 1968 Housing Act, which created several subsidy programs to stimulate building.

Then came scandals involving some of the program, and Nixon gave his next secretary, James T. Lynn, the task of shutting down the subsidies and, in effect, dismantling the agency.

Lynn's successor, Carla Hills, began reversing those policies, but with little money from Congress, she was unable to do much. During the Nixon-Ford years the industry continued to see the agency as its champion.

Patricia Harris changed that, despite the increase in assisted housing production.

"She's clearly re-emphasized the Primary mission of HUD as the advocate of urban areas," says Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis), chairman of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee.

No one could have been more surprised than Proxmire, who cast the only vote against herin the Senate but who now says that as a HUD secretary, "overall, she's a great improvement."

During her confirmation hearing Proxmire kept referring to her preious seven years as a fancy corporate lawyer for an affluent firm here and as a director of such industrial giants as the Chase Manhattan Bank and International Business Machines. Making clear he did not think she was much of an "of, by and for the people" person, he asked how she could possibly understand the views of the inarticulate and under-reprsented poor.

He obviously hit a nerve. In an impassioned response, she said:

"Senator, I am one of them. You do not seem to understand who I am. I'm a black woman, the daughter of a dining car waiter. I'm a black woman who even eight years ago could not buy a house in some parts of the District of Columbia. Senator, to say I'm not by and of and for the people is to show a lack of understanding of who I am and where I came from. . . .

"I started senator, not as a lawyer in a prestigious law firm, but as a woman who needed a scholarship to go to college. If you think I have forgotten that, you're wrong.

"I started as an advocate for a civil rights agency, the American Council on Human Rights, that had to come before this body to ask for access to housing by members of minority groups. If you think I have forgotten that, senator, you're wrong.

"I have been a defender of women, of minorities, of those who are the outcasts of this society, throughout my life, and if my life has any meaning at all, it is that those who start as outcasts may end up being part of the system, and I hope it will mean one other thing, senator, that by being part of the system, one does not forget what it meant to be outside it, because I assure you that while there may be others who forget what it meant to be excluded from the dining rooms of this very building. I shall never forget it."

In a recent interview Harris said her goal "is to provide a decent environment for the people whose environment has been ignored in the past" - the 70 percent of Americans who live in urban areas and especially the 30 percent who live in central cities.

She made clear she considers builders, developers, lenders and contractors as "elements to support the goal of serving these people. We hope to mesh their needs with the needs of the people." she said.

"We're not totally focused on the poor. Our primary concern is to equalize the attractiveness of cities with that of suburbs, In a way, the middle class has been driven out of the cities."

Still, her pro-city actions have been aimed largely at the needy:

She won rapid congressional approval last year for a new "action grant" program to induce industry to invest in aproject - say a factory or a convention center - that will create jobs in cities.

She persuaded Congress to change the formula for distributing $3.6 billion in community development block grants so that older, poorer cities will get a bigger share.

She shut off development grants to communities that refuse to allow subsidized housing projects for the elderly or for poor families.

She issued rules last month that encourage localities to spend three-quaters of their development money on projects - like sewers, parks, community centers - for low-income and moderate-income people. The rules require that the grants "principally benefit" such people, and HUD officials say that means communities must spend at least half the money for the less affluent. They argue that since 46 percent of the 3,200 localities now getting the money meet that requirement, the new rules will make a big impact.

She has taken on the powerful Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae), a private corporation set up with public funds that is the largest single supplier of mortgage money in the country. She is trying to force FNMA to buy more mortgages for lower-income people, especially those in cities - an effort the industry has called "the rape of Fannie Mae."

Early last year Harris, preoccupation with the cities was so strong that she declined on overture from several housing, savings and loan and mortgage banking leaders to meet privately to discuss HUD-industry relations with her. For months relations were cool.

But Albert E. Abrahams, vice predident of the National Association of Realtors, said recently, "She's coming on stronger with us all the time."

And David Stahl, executive vice president of the National Association of Home Builers, whose 96,000 members operate largely in suburbs, said, "She came to our convention in January and was very warm." But he added, "She's still a little hard to get at. Her notion is that her constituency is more the central city."

If she is abrasive in battling for the cities (some of her friends say fighting is second nature because she never forgets how hard she had to fight to get where she is), the beneficiaries of her battles don't seem to care.

"I keep telling her to eat more sandpaper," says Gunther of the mayors' conference.

"She doesn't run away from issues," says a HUD official. "She runs smack into them."

One that ran into her was an issue that threatened the very fiber of her agency - a proposal floated last spring by the Office of Management and Budget to "cash out" HUD's rent subsidy programs and pay the poor directly as part of a new welfare plan.

Advocates say it would have been simpler to administer - by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare - and HUD, which spends $4.9 billion a year on subsidized housing for about 10 million people, would have lost half its budget.

Harris says she was taken by surprise on the issue. Two HUD representatives on an interagency committee on welfare reform had told her cashing out would not be proposed. But they were wrong.

When the idea surfaced, she mobilized HUD forces to work all weekend marshaling figures and arguments for a Monday, June 6, meeting with Carter and OMB officials.

Accounts of the meeting vary. One said she dressed down an OMB official in front of the presdient. She says she did not but merely told him his figures were wrong. Indicating it was a searing encounter of the kind he would like to forget, the official refuses to talk about it.

At any rate the arguments were intense. Harris contended that without federal subsidies developers will not build housing for the poor, the elderly or the handicapped because it is not profitable.

Meanwhile, HUD and its constituencies got to work. One HUD official recalls, "She did not say to us, 'GO organize. But she didn't have to. The institution was endangered. Some of us got on the phone."

Various constituencies - mayors, labor, civil rights, bankers, builders - lobbied on Capitol Hill and in the administration in a way that was reminiscent of the 1960s.After a report about the isse appeared in The Washington Post last July, HEW Secretary Joseph A. Califano Jr. denied having "my greedy paws out for some of HUD's money" and noted that he had never recommended the idea.

Earlier that month, however, he had sent Harris a memo with a hand-written note saying, "Why not cash out Section 8 [a major HUD rent subsidy program] ?"

Harris also fought the OMB, as did other Cabinet officers, over the fiscal 1979 budget, and her record is mixed.

An OMB official say she "did well in that process. She won a helluva lot." In a year when total budget increases were held to 8 percent, HUD's outlay requests went up $1 billion to $9.8 billion - an 11 percent rise.

But Harris wanted rental assistance for 550,000 apartment units for lower-income people; she settled for 400,000 units.

"She was not an effective advocate on housing," Proxmire complained.

He also criticized Harris' Leadership of a Cabinet-level task force, which has gone through a tedious, painful, year-long effort to develop new urban policies and programs that Carter is expected to annouce later this month.

"That effort, will all the in-fighting between agencies, has been less than successful," Proxmire said. Administration officials say a judgment must wait until the plan is unveiled.

Carter is said to have called her presentation of the strategy "excellent" when she and others briefed him a few days ago.

HUD itself is widely viewed as a once-moribund agency that has been turned around, one that now seems to have a sense of mission. When HUD bureaucrats call Harris "Hurricane Pat," they seem to do so with a sense of pride. And outsiders give her high marks for recruiting innovative people as assistant secretaries.

In evaluating her first year at HUD, she says, "We had all our eggs in the air and none cracked."

Recently Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) was recounting the frustrations of her job and told her, "I'm sure you've thought many times about quitting."

"Not at all, senator," she replied. "That would make too many people happy."