As a city, the District, with about 11,400 low-income housing units, ranks 10th in the nation in the number of homes for poverty stricken residents. Because of that sizable inventory, it has qualified for many years for federal funds to modernize the aging units. Other cities, such as Baltimore, which is fourth in the nation in the number of public housing units, have been reasonably efficient and punctual about using those funds. Therefore, Baltimore has enjoyed a rather steady stream of federal money from what is now known as the Comprehensive Improvement Assistance Program.

The District, to the detriment of its poorest residents, has not been so efficient, nor as punctual. Although its public housing units are in serious need of rehabilitation, it had not spent $8.8 million, as of late last year, that had already been available from the program in prior years. We are told now by HUD officials that the District has at last moved to use that money and has begun working with "a sense of urgency."

Fine. But its previous inaction has cost the city millions of dollars in federal funds that would have been available to improve conditions at public housing units around the District. Between 1981 and 1983, the District received an average of $18.6 million a year to modernize its public housing. In 1984, however, the District received only $4.3 million and no funds at all in 1985. Federal housing money has been declining, but HUD officials say an additional factor was present in the District's case: lethargy in using funds it already had.

With money to spend being very scarce just now, it is likely that funding for the Comprehensive Improvement Assistance Program will be cut. That was all the more reason for cities, such as the District, to get all the money they could before things got so tight.

One wonders whether anyone at the District Building realizes that complaints about impending federal budget cuts are going to fall on deaf ears on Capitol Hill so long as the city continues to seem so indifferent to the use of funds that have already been made available. We already learned some weeks ago that the District failed to supply a number of its low-income housing residents with federal money meant to help them pay heating bills. Unless the government can do a better job than it has been doing, the budget news from the Hill is bound to be even worse.