Mayor Marion Barry sure caught the city's attention Monday. He declared that up to 40,000 people were illegally crowded into the city's public housing, which has a normal complement of 60,000. Very soon, Mr. Barry said, the illegals would have to move out. In a report on the city's public housing, his administration identified many of these unauthorized residents as friends and relatives of tenants, people who have nowhere else to live. That alone made his eviction plan seem hasty, insensitive and shortsighted.

Mr. Barry now says that the 40,000 figure -- which appeared in his own report -- is "outrageous" and that the actual number is not nearly that high. He says that he intends to throw out only people with jobs and income who are "running a game on the city" and who can afford to live on their own, and drug dealers who have bought their way into public housing by offering money to tenants for running drug operations. Would a destitute daughter and child living in her mother's public housing unit be evicted? Mr. Barry now says no. He added that a "guestimate" of the number of people to be affected might be 1,000.

In fact, nobody really seems to know how many people are staying in the city's housing units. The mayor says too many tenants have not complied with federal rules on reporting occupancy and household income changes. He is having letters sent to each unit ordering unauthorized tenants to move out, and he means to follow through with eviction notices as needed.

Mr. Barry, like other big-city mayors, is in a pinch. Growing numbers of people need affordable housing, but its availability is declining, and there are no new federal funds for public housing construction in view.

Mr. Barry stirred considerable confusion and concern by the figures he announced on Monday. Think of it: up to 40,000 people suddenly out on the streets. He would do better to speed up the renovation of the 2,000-odd vacant public housing units, which are being put back in use at a rate that gains only 20 apartments per month. Thousands of other apartment units in the city are vacant, and it would help to get them back on the market too.