Officials of the Department of Housing and Urban Development are embarrassed over that agency's lack of action against housing discrimination and are planning to do something about it. As a result, home buyers and renters -- particularly minorities, women and the elderly -- may be able to expect quicker action by the government in coming months when they are denied housing for illegal reasons.

This intensified federal interest will also mean that realtors, landlords and suburban governments may increasingly find themselves the targets of equal opportunity complaints.

The Carter administration has made no formal announcement of its fair housing plans, but there are signs of a new sense of concern about discrimination in this area.

Officials of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the agency that has principal responsibility for fair housing, say they are personally embarrassed by their own performance in this field and appear to be eager for bold reform.

In an interview, HUD Secretary Patricia Roberts Harris called fair housing her single greatest failure since taking that cabinet post.

Another high-ranking official there describes the agency's record on housing discrimination as "toothless and pathetic" -- a poignant characterization in a department where not only the secretary but many other policy-mak-

"The plain fact is that we've let down thousands of people out there," the official said. "I'm talking about women, Hispanics, blacks, whites, upper-income, lower-income, you name it -- people who have been illegally discriminated against when they search for decent housing.

"We have had the chance of a lifetime to really go after real estate brokers who are steering buyers to racially-assigned neighborhoods, and landlords who are refusing to rent to people contrary to the law. But we've blown it on perhaps our most important issue.

"We've sat on our bureaucratic butts letting complaints pile up without resolving them and have never aggressively tried to confront the lawbreakers. That's got to change or we should all resign."

HUD's fair housing efforts were strongly criticized last year by civil rights proponents and in a report prepared for Congress by the General Accounting Office. The agency was cited for its sluggish processing of housing discrimination complaints as well as its overall lack of energy in enforcing the housing provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1968.

Under that law, HUD can investigate allegations of discrimination, attempt to conciliate or settle them out of court, or refer evidence of discriminatory practices to the Justice Department for prosecution.

In reality, complaints filed with HUD against landlords, mortgage bankers or real estate brokers have tended to sit on desks in agency field offices or at headquarters for six to 18 months. By letting cases drag on, HUD effectively has let genuine violators off the hook, and left complainants with no remedy to their problem other than costly court suits.

Harris forced the resignation of her first fair housing chief, Chester McGuire, last year when his office came under fire. The appointee to that post, former D.C. City Council Chairman Sterling Tucker, will head HUD's efforts to dramatically improve its record.

High on Tucker's and the administration's list of priorities is a new state-level enforcement effort aimed at speeding investigations and prosecutions of complaints. If Congress approves the adminstration's requests for funds, complaints in more than 30 states will be handled by state employes paid by HUD. State agencies have taken on some of this work in the past, but couldn't hire the necessary investigators without federal help.

HUD is a also in the process of revamping its own administrative regulations on fair housing, the rules that govern the treatment of individual compliants. It is here that some of the most significant new departures can be expected.

The agency is considering major expansions of its definitions fair housing grievances. For example, the agency is studying a set of recommendations from the national Leadership Conference on Civil Rights that would permit white homeowners to file complaints if they live in communities where blacks, Hispanics and other minorities have had trouble finding housing. Whites could sue as injured parties on the grounds that they had been denied the "social and economic benefits of interracial association" called for by the civil rights law.

The proposed new standards would encourage whites in a suburb where alleged "steering" occurs to file fair housing complaints against brokers or city agencies for practices that cut off a segment of the home-buying market, thereby reducing the potential number of buyers for houses.

Fully implemented, these and other regulatory changes could put fair housing enforcement -- and HUD -- back into the civil rights limelight.

Kenneth R. Harney is editor of Housing and Development Reporter, published by BNA, Inc.