The latest figures show that more than a seventh of the District's 11,700 public housing units are vacant for want of repair. Some of the vacancies are justified; the units are in older projects that have had to be shut down to be rebuilt. But others are out of circulation -- and failing to generate revenue -- because the District housing department continues, inexplicably, to be incapable of even the simplest tasks of management. The hundreds of unnecessary vacancies are a waste of municipal resources that no one involved -- neither mayor nor city council, taxpayers nor those who need the housing -- should any longer tolerate.

The state of public housing in the city is not a secondary issue. About a tenth of the population lives in the projects. Perhaps another tenth is on the waiting list, now 13,000 applicants and more than five years long. The units are important sources not only of shelter but of subsidy; a fifth of the D.C. population is officially poor.

Yet at last count, 1,739 units were vacant. Of these, 1,182 were said to be in need of major repair. That is on its face a forgivable category. Surely such repairs are needed, and take time. But the city housing department takes so much time that federal officials are threatening to withdraw up to $8.8 million dollars in bygone grants that remain unspent.

The other 557 units are classified by the city as in need of only minor to moderate repairs. This is work that the city's own maintenance crews are supposed to be able to do. Federal auditors found last year that the average down time for units in this category -- the time it took to get the "minor to moderate" work done and the affected unit rented again -- was 20 months. It continues for reasons that no one can explain to take that long today; federal officials say it ought to take 10 days.

The overlong vacancies cost the city money -- the federal auditors said revenue loss from all vacancies was more than $1.4 million a year -- and expose the units to vandalism, driving up costs. Everyone understands this. Mayor Barry, in his first campaign for the office he now holds, complained with bitterness and cause that too many city-owned housing units were boarded up. He pledged to tear the boards off. To some extent he has, but the bulk of the problem remains. Needy people are waiting for subsidized housing that, with a minimal level of organization and work, could quickly be theirs. The mayor can make the system work if he chooses. Those are his boards now.