When an Ohio real estate developer bought one of Arlington's oldest and largest garden apartment complexes last year, he declared he would improve the "deteriorating quality of life" at the sprawling red brick rpoject.

Nearly a year later Arlington officials and tenants at the 1,800-unit Buckingham Apartments -- considered a model project when it was built in 1939 -- say the promises by developer James D. Klingbeil remain unfulfilled.

In the past year, they say the new owner has allowed the complex centered around the intersection of N. Glebe Road and N. Pershing Drive to decay to conditions characterized by some tenants as "slum-like" and by county housing inspectors as "deplorable."

Housing inspection chief Theodore Payne said Buckingham has received 300 warnings for housing code violations in the past year. Complaints included rotting walls black with mold, trash-strewn hallways and laundry rooms littered with broken bottles. By comparison, Colonial Village and Barcroft -- two other major Arlington apartment complexes -- received a total of 12 warnings in the same period, officials say.

Arlington officials, who have repeatedly said that their goal is to preserve the county's rapidly dwindling stock of moderately-priced apartments, says Buckingham's decline illustrates their powerlessness in dealing with landlords and developers.

"The new owner has been a disaster for Arlington," said county board chairman Dorothy T. Grotos who says she has held meetings with Buckingham tenants and county staff members. "But all we really have is persuasive power in these situations. We try to be sure that developers follow our laws, but housing inspectors can't impose fines. The system just doesn't work."

Northern Virinia legislators long have argued that their jurisdictions need stronger laws to deal with landlords, but these requests regularly have been defeated in a state legislature that is dominated by representatives more sympathetic to property owners then renters.

The 43-year-old Klingbeil is a mysterious figure to Arlington officials, even though his purchase of Buckingham, the Claremont, several other apartment buildings and a large tract of vacant land in South Arlington -- at a total cost of $48 million -- have made him one of the county's biggest landlords.

Most county officials say they have never met the man, whose firm, based in Columbus, also has developed a string of apartment and town house projects across the country, including several in Reston, Columbia and Springfield.

But, while they knew little about Klingbeil's background, county officials do know that he is converting the 500-unit Claremont on South Walter Reed Drive to a condominium building. The estimated starting price per unit: $50,000.

Seeing this, some officials speculate it will only be a matter of time before the Buckingham undergoes a similar conversion.

Buckingham officials, who say they have ruled out condominium conversion "for the present," deny that they are allowing the project to run down. They say they are currently planning a major clean-up effort for the entire complex and are rehabilitating 24 units as a test project.

"The Klingbeil Co. philosophy is to maintain service," said the firm's vice-president Jack Smith."I don't know where Dorothy Grotos is getting her information but we're doing the best we can. We've had super (relations) with the county."

Arlington officials disagree. Frances Lunney, director of the county's Tenant-Landlord Commission, said Buckingham officials recently threatened to sur inspectors for alleged harassment in attempting to enforce the housing code.

"Both parties have to want to work together when the legal requirement is nil," said county board member Ellen M. Bozman. "the lays we are permitted to pass only allow for minimum standards."

Under Virginia law, hosuing code violations are considered a misdemenaor, punishable by a maximum $1,000 fine and a 30-day jail sentence.

"What's a $1,000 fine?" inspections chief Payne asked, "when you're talking about repairing a $60,000 boiler."

Many Buckingham tenants say they remameber when the complex was a pleasant, close-knit jcommunity that prided itself on spacious, manicured grounds as well as inexpensive rents.

"Maintenance has become virtually nonexistent here," said Barbara Baker, who moved to Buckingham Eight years ago with her husband and two young sons. "It used tobe very different. But I've been calling at least once a month for the past year trying to get them to fix a rusty fence near where my kids play. They keep saying they'll do something but so far it's still not fixed."

Tenants and county officials say that after the death of Allie Freed, Buckingham's original owner, several years ago, the project began todeteriorate.

In recent years hundreds of Vietnamese refugees and other foreignborn minorities have moved to Buckingham, Iured by its proximity to Washington and relatively inexpensive rents that begain at about $200 a month for one-bedroom units.

The racial composition of the apartments has also changed, going from an all-white development to oen in which racial minorities accout for almost half of the residents. Arlington officials say that nearly 70 percent of the tenants quality for federal housing subsidies.

Last June at a public hearing Kingbeil vice president Jerry Vogel promised the Arlington County Board that he would participate in a federal rent subsidy program and would set aside 400 units for qualified tenants in return for the board's endorsement of an application for a federally insured mortgage loan from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Soveral months later, in a move that angered Arlington officials, the firm withdrew its commitment pending a review by HUD. A decision not to use the subsidy money could cause Arlington to lose nearly $4 million in federal funds and force thousands of tenants to find new housing in a county with an apartment vacancy rate of less than 1 percent, they say. That could cause serious hardships, officials say.

"We've spent a lot of time trying to convince the Kingbeil Co. to use those funds," Lunney said.