IN A WELCOME announcement, the administration has now said it will address the high-priority civil rights issue of enforcing the 15-year-old law against discrimination in housing sales and rentals. Under that law, complaints are subject to conciliation by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. But if conciliation fails, private individuals must bring their own lawsuits in court to enforce their rights. The Justice Department can sue only violators who engage in a widespread pattern or practice of discrimination.

It has been clear for some time that this enforcement mechanism is ineffective. Congress has in the past considered but not enacted remedial legislation. Last month, Sen. Charles Mathias and 37 cosponsors introduced a bill with the backing of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. Now HUD Secretary Pierce has released details of a forthcoming administration bill.

Both proposals provide a new enforcement mechanism for individuals whose rights have been violated. Both would continue to refer cases to state agencies where appropriate. Both look to conciliation as a first step. Under either bill, a plaintiff could apply for a temporary restraining order to prevent the sale or rental of the housing in question during adjudication of the claim. Sen. Mathias proposes civil penalties of up to $10,000 on a first offense; the administration bill allows a $50,000 penalty in such circumstances.

The major difference between the two bills is the method of enforcement. The Mathias bill authorizes administrative law judges to receive complaints and issue orders. Their decisions would be reviewable first by a new Fair Housing Review Commission and eventually by federal courts of appeals. Civil rights groups believe that this kind of specialized administrative enforcement is faster than court suits. The administration disagrees: the bill Secretary Pierce describes would have the Justice Department bring suit in federal court on behalf of individuals when the HUD secretary so recommends. The essential element, though, is in both bills: the burden of enforcement is on the government rather than on the individual victim.

Administration action on fair housing is not only appropriate and right, it is politically smart. No less so is a recent announcement by Assistant Attorney General William Bradford Reynolds that he will tour Mississippi with black leaders to investigate possible violations of the Voting Rights Act. Steps like these counter the widely held belief that this administration has been at best indifferent to civil rights concerns that affect not only minorities but the general perception of American society as just and fair.