FOR TOO LONG, the solution for the emergency housing needs of homeless families has been to pour public money into places such as the Pitts Motor Hotel in Washington. There a family of four gets only one room (with no appliances) and three meals a day at the uneconomical cost to the District government of $2,782 a month, or $30,000 a year. The city's Department of Human Services has $7.5 million a year to spend on housing the homeless. The largest share of that money goes to the Pitts, which holds only 52 families. More cost-efficient alternatives that can increase the number of families given shelter must be developed.

About a year ago, the District government began a new program. It involved voluntary or mandatory agreements between formerly homeless families and landlords for traditional apartments. Rent money is automatically removed from the family's public assistance check. That is a much better idea, and it costs only $414 to $658 per month. But there is a snag in the program here and in other cities. Not enough low-income housing is left to make it really work. Only 91 families are in the program in the District.

The city of New York has been working on a better idea. State officials have given the city the right to offer 1,000 bonuses of up to $12,000 to landlords for every apartment they make available to homeless families. In exchange for the $12,000, which equals the cost of keeping a family in a welfare hotel in New York for eight months, the landlord offers a family a two-year lease on an apartment.

There are no federal funds for more low-income housing. But one step that some cities are considering is to pull money from other parts of their budgets to take over and renovate vacant and distressed apartments in order to rent them to low- to moderate-income families. There are several thousand vacant apartments in the District. There are about 2,000 more vacant public housing units that should have tenants and don't because the city is so slow in renovating them. Taking steps to bring these apartments back into service could eliminate the wasteful use of welfare hotels altogether, and house people in need.