Conditions at Buckingham Apartments, one of the oldest and largest rental complexes in Arlington, were characterized nine months ago by tenants and county housing officials as "slum-like" and "deplorable."

Theodore Payne, Arlington's housing inspection supervisor, said last March that Buckingham had received an inordinate number of warnings -- 300 -- for housing code violations during the previous year.

County Board Chairman Dorothy Grotos called James Klingbeil, an Ohio real estate developer who bought the 1,800-unit complex in April 1978, a "disaster for Arlington."

Less than a year later, however, the Klingbeil Corporation management is getting high marks for upgrading Buckingham. In the process, some of its harshest critics are now offering warm, if guarded, congratulations.

"I think theyRe doing a great job," Payne says of Buckingham's management. "We still get some complaints . . . but their cooperation has been just fantastic."

"I think there has been tremendous progress," says Grotos. "It's looking a lot better than it did a year ago."

The tenants are even more pleased by the changes at Buckingham, which have included modernizing laundry rooms, adding new slate roofs, replacing gutters and re-asphalting many of the parking lots. Approximately 825 warped wooden windows have been replaced with double-pane aluminum ones. Hallways, once littered with trash, are now clean and have been repainted.

"This new management group seems to be working very hard at doing what they promised," says Kendall White, president of the newly formed tenants' association at Buckingham. "It's been quite a project and a big expense. We love it."

But White says the tenants' association, which was organized this fall and now numbers a "few hundred members," is not ready to bet that the good relationship between management and tenants will be everlasting.

"We have been told . . . they have a deep concern for us. We will take that with a grain of salt," says White. "We will be keeping an eye on everything they do."

When White moved to Buckingham 12 years ago, the 42-year-old complex was being picketed by both civil rights advocates and the Ku Klux Klan over Buckingham's segregated housing. In contrast, during the last five years the complex has attracted a large number of Southeast Asian refugees as tenants. Last year management estimated more than 60 percent of the tenants were "non-white." y

While racial composition is still an issue with some tenants, the biggest concern White and others in the tenants' association share is the possibility that Buckingham will join the host of Arlington apartment buildings which have been converted to condominiums in the last few years. There already is a shortage of rental housing in Arlington, which tenant groups say has reached "crisis" proportions. If a rental complex as large as Buckingham is lost to condominium conversion, argue tenants' groups in the county, the situation would be critical.

"One of the main reasons the tenants' association got started was that people were worried about condominium conversions," says John Jackley, one of seven members of the Buckingham tenants' association board. "If they wanted to go condo, the whole area would be up in arms."

The Klingbeil officals repeatedly have said they have no plans to convert Buckingham. County Board member Ellen Bozman believes them. She points to renovation at the complex, especially the installation of new kitchens, as evidence there is no immediate threat.

"If they wanted to convert to condominiums, it would take at least two years. One of the big selling points of condos is new kitchens. By then those would be two years old," said Bozman.

But the renovation has created other concerns. Buckingham has been a low-and moderate-income rental complex since it was built in 1937. The approximately 300 apartments which have been renovated, however, are now being offered for rents beyond the means of low-income tenants. One-bedroom apartments begin at $320 a month, while two-bedroom apartments start at $360 a month.

Frank Stavroff, a general partner in the Klingbeil Corp., says he hopes to have all 1,800 rental units renovated within the next three years. That prospect worries many tenants. While management has promised that no tenants will be forced to move because of renovation, the modernized apartments will cost about $100 more a month than the unrenovated units.

"I guess the question is what is going to happen over the long run to those people who just can't afford to pay the higher rent," says Ed Brandt, supervisor for housing in Arlington's planning division. "There is going to be a problem there unless we just say people with low and moderate incomes aren't going to be able to live there. That's one thing when you have a building with 10 or 20 units. But in the case of Buckingham, you're talking about a whole neighborhood."

Brandt and other county officials say they are disappointed with the Klingbeil firm on one count. Last year a Klingbeil official told the County Board the firm would set aside approximately 400 units for a federal rent-subsidy program. In return, the Klingbeil Corp. wanted the board's endorsement of an application for a federally insured mortgage loan from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. iBut Klingbeil wanted all the subsidized units in one location, while the board wanted the units scattered throughout the complex. As a result, Klingbeil withdrew its commitment.

"It appears now they aren't going to follow that (federal subsidy) route," says Brant. "That would have made funds available to help 20 percent of the tenants."

Tenants' association members say they are concerned about Buckingham's changing character, especially the expected higher rents when renovation is complete.

"There is already less than a 1 percent vacancy rate in the county," says Jackley who moved to Buckingham with his wife this summer from an apartment building in Alexandria that was converted to condominiums. "New conversions make the competition for other rental units even fiercer. The economic value goes up and the rents go up."

The Buckingham tenants' association has joined Tenants of Arlington County (TOAC) where members say they can work on tenant concerns most effectively at the county and state level.

"We know people on the County Board . . . at HUD and people in the state legislature in Richmond," says Buckingham tenants' association president White. "We don't have a crisis hanging over our head right now, but I'm keeping my ear to the ground."