WHATEVER HAPPENED to fair housing?

Last year there were two serious fair housing bills before Congress, one proposed by the Reagan administration and another by Sens. Charles Mathias (R-Md.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Reps. Don Edwards (D-Calif.) and Hamilton Fish (R-N.Y.). This year no serious fair housing bill has been introduced at all.

Fortunately, that does not mean that there has been no progress. One reason no bill got even close to passage last year is that backers of the two bills never got together -- even though there was much agreement between them. Both provided substantial civil penalties. Both would refer cases to state and local agencies where appropriate. Both provided for temporary restraining orders to prevent the sale or rental of the property in question. They differed mainly on enforcement. The Mathias-Kennedy bill would create a set of administrative law judges and an additional layer of a fair housing review commission before cases could be brought to court. The administration bill would let the Justice Department bring suits in federal court.

Now the word is that Housing and Urban Development Secretary Samuel Pierce, in negotiations with Messrs. Mathias and Fish, has said he's willing to consider some form of administrative remedy for individual victims of discrimination. That doesn't settle everything, of course. It's possible, for one thing, that others in the administration won't accept Mr. Pierce's course. And it's also possible that the remedy sought in the Mathias-Kennedy bill may not be the best that can be devised. The key here is to provide speedy, sure relief for those who have been discriminated against -- to make it clear to sellers and potential buyers that no one can be denied a chance to buy or rent housing because of race, religion or color.

There's room for good-faith argument over which remedy is speediest and surest, but there's not a whole lot of time. To understate the case, this issue has never been a high priority for many in the Reagan administration. And some civil rights leaders

TAKE 214195 PAGE 00002 TIME 20:51 DATE 05-19-85 don't put it at the top of their list either; they're concentrating now on the bill to overturn the Grove City decision. That's a worthy cause. But it's not inconsistent with pushing fair housing. When you get away from the details of legislative clauses, an ugly fact remains: too many Americans are unable to live where they would like to because of racial discrimination. Attitudes seem to be changing in the right direction, but too slowly. Vigorous enforcement of a new fair housing law, with speedy, sure remedies can improve the lives of thousands of Americans. It's good that negotiations are going on behind the scenes, but it soon will be time for agreement and action if a fair housing bill is to have a chance of passage in this Congress.