In these austere days, the Housing and Urban Development Department has developed a special flair for unveiling new programs without spending much money. The idea is to encourage voluntary cooperation, preferably the inexpensive kind.

Take HUD's new Joint Venture for Affordable Housing. You might think that it involves massive new subsidies to bring down housing costs. It is a research effort to identify local building codes that raise building costs.

Demonstration projects in Lincoln, Neb., and Grand Junction, Colo., have helped reduce the cost of a home by $5,000 to $10,000, HUD officials say. They are testing such methods as cutting the amount of lumber by 20 percent and shrinking the size of the lot required for a house. "No special federal funding is used in these projects," a HUD press release says.

When HUD does submit to new spending, it is often for the constituent groups that snap up agency contracts the way farmers grab crop subsidies.

On the affordable housing project, HUD gave the National Association of Home Builders' research foundation a $400,000 contract to monitor the cost savings and provide technical assistance. The American Planning Association received a $298,000 contract, and the International City Management Association received one for $408,000 to hold workshops and produce a manual on local standards.

The National Association of Counties ($195,000), National Governors Association ($106,000), National Conference of State Legislatures ($98,000) and Council of State Community Affairs Agencies ($89,000) all were hired to hold workshops, disseminate information and "identify the role of the states in promoting affordable housing."