LOW-INCOME housing has for decades been the object of expensive and inefficient government intervention. Could the private sector do better?

James Rouse, the development mogul responsible for such successful projects as Boston's Faneuil Market, Baltimore's Harborplace, and the "new town" of Columbia, Md., thinks it can. Mr. Rouse has been involved from the start 10 years ago with Jubilee Housing, a nonprofit grass-roots effort to rehabilitate apartment buildings. Jubilee works in and around Adams- Morgan. It emphasizes better housing for current residents, rather than moving them out and (awful word) "gentrifying." It relies primarily on volunteer labor, including managerial and professional services from neighborhood and downtown businesses. Three buildings have been completed, three more are in the works, and one is in the planning stage. That amounts to more than 300 units.

Mr. Rouse is trying to do the same thing in other cities. He has had some success. One source of help has been the Enterprise Foundation, which collects corporate, foundation and individual donations and uses them to support organizations like Jubilee. Another is a profit-making corporation called Enterprise Development Co., modeled after Mr. Rouse's projects in Boston and Baltimore and owned by the foundation.

Enterprise Development Co. works on a fast schedule to develop parcels of land for retail stores, often in partnership with local government agencies that lend money and assist with regulatory problems. The projects will not only contribute vibrancy to downtown areas--Norfolk this June, Toledo and others soon-- but will also eventually make money for new small businesses--and thus create jobs. The profits down the road are to go in part to governments that are partners and in part to the foundation. From there they go to outfits like Jubilee. In short, unlike traditional companies, which eventually turn their profits over to the shareholders, this will channel profits into community development.

So far, things look promising. Jubilee has been stalled in its plan to turn over ownership of the buildings to the residents. Of course there are some problems, but things should work out. The Enterprise Development Co. is up and running, with one project complete, another nearing completion and four in the planning stages. Its president, Aubrey Goram, sees a pattern of excellent cooperation from many local governments, including District officials. If the recovery really comes and these retail developments prove profitable, there could be a very important source of funds for saving inner-city housing.