Discrimination in housing still is widespread 17 years after passage of the 1968 Civil Rights Act and is particularly severe against racial minorities and families with children, according to a survey released this week by a national housing rights organization.

The National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing (NCDH) found widespread bias, including in the Washington metropolitan area, despite a popular notion that bias is a "thing of the past," said Martin E. Sloane, executive vice president of the NCDH.

Directors of nearly all the 34 NCDH-affiliated fair housing centers that took part in the survey rated discrimination against minorities and families with children as being "very severe" or "somewhat severe," Sloane said. The directors were asked to rate the degree of several types of discrimination in their areas, describe cases and provide any available statistics.

Most of the fair housing centers are situated in large metropolitan areas, with staffs whose "judgments are . . . based on long experience and day-to-day work in the fair housing field," according to the NCDH.

Sloane said weaknesses in fair housing law and lax enforcement are major causes of continued housing bias.

By prosecuting few cases, "the Justice Department, particularly, has sent a clear message to the housing industry that they don't have to worry much about discrimination," Sloane said. Lawsuits filed during the Reagan administration's years in office have been focused narrowly on individual landlords or management companies, he said. In previous administrations, the Justice Department often sued groups -- of apartment management companies or municipalities, for example -- for practices affecting large segments of a community, according to Sloane.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development "has appeared to virtually write off enforcement through Title 8 [the housing section of the 1968 Civil Rights Act] and is relying on voluntary compliance" through devices such as affirmative marketing agreements with real estate boards and local organizations, Sloane said.

In the NCDH survey, discrimination based on national origin was described as "severe" or "somewhat severe" by nearly two-thirds of the respondents, and bias based on sex was rated "severe" or "somewhat severe" by slightly more than half of the housing center directors. About 10 of the directors reported "somewhat severe" discrimination because of religion, and one-third said bias against the handicapped is "somewhat severe."

Families with children encounter bias in Montgomery County and the District of Columbia despite laws prohibiting landlords from refusing to rent to them, said Larry Weston, executive director of the Metropolitan Washington Planning and Housing Association, one of the fair housing groups. The organization plans to work with the D.C. Office of Human Rights in a year-long program of testing bias against families. The program is scheduled to get under way next month, he said.

Because many "families are black and poor," discrimination also has racial implications, Weston said.

"Discrimination against families with children is severe" in Montgomery County and "has a disproportionate effect on minorities because they are more likely to rent," said Jackie Simon, former president of the Suburban Maryland Fair Housing Center. Although Montgomery County legislation prohibits discrimination against families with children, it does not apply to a large number of rental units that were "grandfathered," or allowed to remain adult-only if the rule existed when the law was passed, she said.

The bias is particularly severe in the Bethesda-Chevy Chase community, where nearly 50 percent of the rental units exclude children or discriminate against them in some way, such as placing families with children only on specific floors or charging higher rent or security deposits, according to Simon. Such discrimination affects a much smaller percentage of the rental units in other parts of the county, she added.

Baltimore Neighbors, a nonprofit organization that works to remedy discrimination in housing and mediates disputes between tenants and landlords in Baltimore, has "found [racial] discrimination still blatant," Don Miller, associate director of the organization, said in a telephone interview.

"Our testing shows there is still discrimination, and our surveys and monitoring seem to indicate" that it is increasing, said Miller, a survey participant. "It's more subtle. The [real estate] industry is being nicer, but they're still discriminating."

The residential neighborhoods of Baltimore are "still divided along racial lines" to a large extent, Miller said.

Baltimore Neighbors has filed nine lawsuits charging racial bias in the last two years. Five have been settled out of court in favor of the tenants, according to Miller.

Funds that would have financed a new HUD-proposed fair housing testing and enforcement program, among other "new initiatives," were cut out of the HUD spending bill before it was approved this week by the House of Representatives. The Senate version of the appropriations measure, which was passed earlier, does not contain money for the program.

The House's housing bill contains a provision authorizing the Fair Housing Initiatives Program, but the Senate has no authorizing legislation for it, making the survival of the program unlikely. A House-Senate conference to work out differences in the two pieces of legislation is not expected until next week.