A national affordable-housing advocacy group has taken the federal government to court for allegedly blocking it from helping low-income buyers purchase foreclosed homes once owned by failed savings and loan associations.

The lawsuit was filed last month in an Illinois federal district court by the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) against the Resolution Trust Corp. (RTC).

The RTC is responsible for overseeing the management of bankrupt S&Ls and disposing of the assets of defunct thrifts now owned by the federal government.

The nonprofit group alleges in its suit that the RTC has failed "out of negligence, incompetence, recklessness and/or intentional malice" to implement the Affordable Housing Disposition Program created by the S&L cleanup legislation passed last August.

RTC spokeswoman Nancy Schertzing said the agency would not comment on the case until it filed its response to the lawsuit in court.

Steven R. Bachmann, a Detroit lawyer representing ACORN, called the suit a "symbol of ACORN's exasperation" with the RTC because the lawsuit primarily "just asks the RTC to do what they are supposed to do."

The S&L cleanup law directs the federal government to give low-income buyers and nonprofit groups first rights to purchase single-family homes valued at no more than $67,500 during a 90-day period during which the properties are held off the general market.

During that time, the government will also make sales price concessions not otherwise offered to investors or home buyers with incomes above the affordable housing program cutoff.

According to figures supplied by the RTC, it is aware of more than 16,000 single-family homes that could eventually be sold under the affordable-housing program, although only 5,745 properties, including a few apartment buildings, have reached that stage so far.

The suit asks the court to award ACORN damages of at least $67,500 for every home the RTC has "improperly" sold to someone other than a low-income buyer or nonprofit group.

Bachmann accused the government of trying to maximize its return by selling these homes to private speculators rather than fulfill its affordable-housing mandate.

The agency, Bachmann said, is able to circumvent the 90-day affordable-housing window by encouraging sales while the government acts as a sort of legal guardian to the homes during a period known as "conservatorship" that immediately follows the takeover of a failed institution.

Yet, the 90-day head start for low-income buyers does not begin, Bachmann said, until the homes move into receivership, which is when the government takes title to the properties.

Bachmann also charged that the agency is not enforcing its own promise to refrain from pushing the early sale of the modestly priced homes.

Nonetheless, Bachmann said, ACORN is willing to bid for homes under government control rather than take a chance on losing them to investors. The RTC, though, has failed to supply the group with relevant sales data, he said.

The suit also asks the court to designate ACORN as an affordable-housing clearinghouse that disseminates sales information to eligible buyers because the RTC has "refused or failed" to do so.

While not commenting on the suit directly, Stephen S. Allen, director of the RTC's low-income housing program, said his agency discourages the "extensive marketing" to sell houses below $67,500 while they are under government control.

However, he added, "if there are offers they are looked at and if determined acceptable are accepted."

Allen said he did not, however, have current figures on how many homes below $67,500 had sold while still under government control. The average price of homes available through the affordable housing program, he added, is about $38,000.

The RTC, Allen said, is also "looking at" naming several national nonprofit housing groups as clearinghouses. So far, he said, it has designated only federal home loan district banks and state housing finance agencies as clearinghouses.