IT'S SURE to shake the anywhere-but-here school of neighborhood planners, but the city's zoning commission has taken an important step in voting to permit halfway houses and other group homes in all residentially zoned neighborhoods instead of continuing to cram them into crowded areas north of downtown. If exercised evenhandedly, this new freedom could go a long way not only toward improving conditions in the city's existing institutions, but also toward providing more constructive surroundings for youth care, health facilities, emergency shelters and rehabilitation homes.

This is not a policy of anything goes (e.g., "There goes the neighborhood"), but rather a change that will permit certain small group homes for up to eight residents to be located in any area zoned for residential or neighborhood commercial purposes. Generally, there can be no more than one in each block. Larger homes, as well as any homes for people in corrections programs or alcohol and narcotics rehabilitation, may also be located throughout the city -- but only with special exceptions granted by the D.C. Board of Zoning Adjustment.

There's one slightly silly cosmetic change, too: instead of the familiar term "halfway house," the city has turned to its Glossary of Gobbledygook for the new reference, "community-based residential facility." Call them what they will, there is nothing inherently ominous about these homes unless -- and here's where neighbors along the 14th Street corridor or in Adams Morgan and Anacostia have had legitimate, longstanding complaints -- these facilities are concentrated in certain clusters instead of scattered citywide.

The decision brings to mind a similar policy change made more than 10 years ago, when more than a few residents of upper Connecticut Avenue were less than thrilled to hear that an apartment building -- Regency House -- would become the city's first public housing project west of Rock Creek Park. Here too the idea was to end the concentration of public housing in certain sections of town. There was a protest, accompanied by all sorts of thin concerns about how difficult it might be for public housing tenants to "fit in."

To their credit, Mayor Washington and the more hospitable residents of the neighborhood saw to it that the project came into being -- and in no time, the fuss was forgotten. The residents of Regency House turned out to be very much like their neighbors -- grateful for privacy, peaceful surroundings and a chance to live in reasonable comfort. There is no reason to believe that this latest housing policy can't work just as well if residents give it a chance.