Congressional supporters of a bill that would strengthen enforcement of fair housing laws called this week for an intensified campaign on behalf of "the most important civil rights bill since 1965."

In a room full of civil rights activists, Rep. Don Edwards (D-Calif.) called on the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights to double its lobbying efforts for a bi-partisan bill to amend the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

The amendments are needed to put an end to "epidemic housing discrimination in our country," edwards said.

"We don't have the high emotion" that accompanied the civil rights reforms of the 1960s, he added, "but we do have a great need."

The amendments would give HUD authority for the first time to enforce the fiar housing law, through administrative proceedings, and to initiate its own investigations. It would also be able to seek temporary orders to stop the sale or rental of homes and apartments where owners are allegedly discriminating against applicants on the basis or race, color, sex, national origin, religion or handicap. Rooms for rent in single-family houses would still be excluded.

HUD could issue cease-and-desist orders after administrative hearings upheld the charges. The amendments would also allow HUD to levy fines of up to $10,000.

Currently, potential renters or buyers who believe they have been disciminated against may report violations to HUD, but the agency's only remedy is to try to conciliate.

Persons who think they have been discriminated against now may also go to court on their own, but the Justice Department only brings suit when it believes there is a broad pattern of discrimination.

Some housing rights of physically or mentally impared persons would be protected by the law for the first time. Handicapped persons would be allowed to make "reasonable modifications" to their rental units accessible, but at their own expense. They could not inconvenience other tenants or significantly alter the way a building is used.

Landlords would not have to rent to persons who were "disruptive, irresponsible or otherwise unable to care for the premises."

The bill would also expressly forbid redlining -- the denying of mortgages and housing insurance to specific areas.

In the 12 years the fair housing law has been on the books, "Justice has filed well over 300 cases, but i think it's fair to say we are encountering not less but more residential segregation," said Drew Days, assistant attorney general in the civil rights division of Justice.

Such practices as appraisal techniques, block-busting and racial steering have helped impede the fair housing law, Day said in the interview. "In my estimation, there is much more overt discrimination in the area of housing than in employment or voting or public accommondations."

Days and others spoke at the 30th annual meeting of the Leadership Conference, a coalition of civil rights and labor activities that has been working on behalf of the bill.

"We believe enactment is not only possible, but absolutely essential," said Housing and Urban Development Secretary Moon Landrieu. If it isn't strengthened, the Fair Housing Act runs the risk of becoming "nothing but a hollow mockery," he said.

The amendments are being opposed by some of the national organizations that represent real estate brokers, insurers and appraisers.

William North, counsel to the National Association of Realtors, has called the proposals an "invitation for abuse and misuse of the law by self-appointed, self-anointed, self-selected vigilantes." Such persons would "use the threat of litigation and its costs to export contributions, advertisements, legal fees and unwarranted settlements from those in the real estate community unable to afford the ever-escalating costs of defense," North alleged.

The society of Real Estate Appraisers, while generally supporting the amendments, has asked for an additional amendment that would not preclude its members from considering "all factors which may impact the market value of a property," including race, religion and ethnicity, so long as an appraiser can document it, a spokesman said.

The bill came up before the House Judicary Committee in October but was called back by supporters to buy time to find votes. "We got out-lobbied," said Ronald H. Brown, legislative chairman for the Leadership Council.

According to Edwards, Republican supporters of the bill found a problem in the way it was drafted. It has since been altered by Edwards and Rep. Thomas Railsback (R.-Ill.) to allow the finding of an administrative law judge to be appealed.

Edwards said he expects success in the House Judiciary Committee when the bill comes up later this month because of "general harmony" among Republican and Democratic supporters and a campaign already under way on behalf of the amendments.

The push for the amendments follows several studies that have found continuing discrimination in the rental and sale of housing. A survey of 3,000 brokers and rental agents in 40 metropolitan areas, commissioned by HUD in 1979, found that a black person stands a 62 percent chance of encountering discrimination when looking for a place to rent.

Discrimination against Hispanics, Asian-Americans, women and the handicapped is also widespread, according to supporters of the amendments.

"Residential integration in American cities remains the exception rather than the rule," a recent Ford Foundation report stated.