BOSTON -- Public housing has arrived on Cape Cod, the vacationers' paradise. It is being welcomed in historic, affluent Concord on the high-tech Rte. 128 belt, and in some 150 other Massachusetts communities, from Lincoln to Chatham to Fitchburg.

But this public housing is a far cry from the standard, big, federally built project. Attractively designed with manicured lawns, basements and sloped roofs, it is indistinguishable from the other homes in the middle-class neighborhoods where it's located.

Bay State communities have stopped spurning public housing because they face severe labor shortages and because new public housing has shed its ugliness and stigma.

There's another critical difference: This public housing is funded and guided by state government, not Washington. Absent are the rigid rules and insensitivity to local needs that have often characterized federal housing projects. The Massachusetts program is so successful that the legislature raised its funding to more than $100 million, which is more than Gov. Michael S. Dukakis had requested.

Massachusetts has become the paradigm of the country's housing future, with an alphabet soup of specialized agencies and programs to cope with any problem. They range from "HOP" -- the home ownership opportunity program for young families priced out of Massachusetts' superheated real estate market -- to "SHARP," a state-loan program for builders of affordable rental housing.

All this costs money. But with creative financing, it doesn't need to be as costly as federal housing programs. Dukakis says the average subsidy for each SHARP apartment is $22,500 over 15 years, compared with $300,000 over 30 years for the average federally sponsored "Section 8" low-income apartment.

But not just wealthy activist states and cities are jumping on this bandwagon. Even conservative, poor Kentucky initiated programs this year, including a housing trust fund, special grants to builders of low-income housing who hire Vietnam War veterans, the construction of small "clusters" of homes in urban neighborhoods and weatherization grants for elderly people.

Why the surge of state interest?

"If not us, who? And if not now, when?" said John Sidor of the Council of State Community Affairs Agencies. He points to the collapse of new federal housing starts since 1981, plus towering federal deficits that dampen prospects for a revival of federal assistance.

And then there are bottom-line reasons for states to become housing activists: Lack of affordable housing, translated into labor shortages, can threaten business investment and jobs.

A few states are using hard-to-come-by general funds for housing. But more, 15 by latest count, have created special housing trust funds, largely financed by taxes on real estate transactions. The richest tap of all, begun in Maine and Florida, is a straight tax on all real estate sales. Applied across all states, it one day could generate billions of dollars in revenue and replace much of the traditional federal housing investment.

It would be premature to say that states are poised to take over the dwindling federal role. Up to now, Washington's subsidies have dwarfed their yearly housing outlays. But nearly every state is trying something, and the standard of what constitutes a significant state program, propelled by such leaders as Massachusetts, California, New York, Maryland and Colorado, is rising rapidly. Many are providing special aid for the homeless, tapping state-pension funds to subsidize mortgages, setting up land banks for future housing sites and overhauling state building codes and other regulations that drive up housing costs.

Many cities, too, are becoming highly innovative housing developers, and most are being forced into working with the homeless. Minneapolis-St. Paul and surrounding Hennepin and Ramsey counties have a comprehensive program with the goal of going beyond temporary shelters for the homeless, instead providing decent, long-term, affordable housing. Portland, Ore., too, has a model homeless plan.

Across the country, cities are working hard to encourage low-income housing. Some have enlisted active business support and are working closely with the expanding ranks of community-development corporations and other housing nonprofits.

Participating cities include Boston, Chicago, New York, Miami, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Denver, Indianapolis and Oakland. In Cleveland, one of the city's new housing partnerships is constructing Lexington Village, a 600-unit apartment and town house complex in the Hough area, which was hit hard in the riots of the 1960s.

Most localities still deserve failing marks on zoning, which often is used as a way to exclude poor people from choice areas close to jobs. The administration of federally funded public housing by cities has often been paternalistic or worse, they say.

But with thousands of new and rehabilitated housing units being produced by state and city governments, the housing model for the 1990s may resemble today's Massachusetts more than yesterday's Great Society.