The toughest challenge for Levy Daugherty after his divorce a year ago was finding a home for himself and his two sons. Finally, after scouring the Washington area for two months, he found an affordable three-bedroom apartment at the Buckingham Community in Arlington.

An elementary school is across the street and it takes Daugherty 15 minutes to walk to the Ballston Metro station. No balconies or heavy traffic pose dangers to his kids.

Daugherty, who moved from Richmond to open an office cleaning service, snapped up the apartment, which is is in a two-story, red-brick building shaded by tall oaks and sycamores, for $405 a month.

Now, he and his neighbors are afraid that this great bargain will no longer be within the reach of their budgets. They are concerned that Buckingham, which is one of the few large apartment complexes left in Arlington County that offers low- and moderate-priced housing, will go condiminium.

Tenants learned last week that 1,400 of the 1,800 apartments in the sprawling complex at Glebe Road and Pershing Drive were sold to a Chicago real estate developer who specializes in condominium conversions.

Although the new owner, Stein and Co., has not yet announced any plans for Buckingham, rumors about an impending conversion are circulating on front steps and in conversations at the grocery check-out line.

Daugherty says he can't afford to buy his apartment if it is converted to a condominium. And there are many others like him who say they don't know where they will go next. People like Philip Sampson, a 70-year-old amputee who needs a ground floor apartment so he can get out in his wheelchair. Or Barbara Davis, a 34-year-old medical technician, who can't find another apartment building in the area that will let her keep her frenetic poodles. Or 80-year-old Michael Nadel, who has lived in the same apartment for 26 years and is not keen on senior citizen housing.

"If they uproot us, they should help each person find another place," Daugherty said the other day, lounging on the concrete stoop in front of his garden apartment. "It's like pulling a tree out from the ground. It's going to die unless you find someplace else to plant it."

Fran lunney, director of Arlington's Tenant-Landlord Commission, said 25 percent of the county's moderately priced garden apartments have been turned into condominiums in the past few years. The enormous Buckingham complex, where rents for some one-bedroom apartments are as low as $250 a month, represents close to 10 percent of the remaining moderate-cost housing in the county, she said.

"If Buckingham is converted, the most severe impact will be on families," Lunney said. "There are fewer units in the county that allow children, and garden apartments are more appropriate for raising children. Families who can't afford to buy would be forced to relocate outside the county."

Arlington Officials says they have no legal power to prevent Buckingham from converting to condominiums. And like the tenants they still have received no official plans from the new owner.

Richard Stein, the Chicago developer who bought his interest in Buckingham for $44 million, refused to say if his firm planned to convert Buckingham to condominiums, and said he would present detailed proposals for the complex within four or five weeks.

Stein recently converted the Hyde Park and Chatham apartment complexes in Arlington to condominiums and has built subsidized housing in Chicago. He noted, however, "that (subsidized housing) is not what I plan on doing (at Buckingham).The issue of low- and moderate-income housing is an issue to be addressed by others than myself."

He said his firm expects to spend more than $15 million renovating Buckingham.

"Buckingham, in my opinion, is substandard housing. If we don't come in and do massive rehabilitation, it would have to be boarded up and abandoned," he said.

Stein's purchase of most of Buckingham is the latest chapter in a troubled history for the development, which was hailed as a model apartment complex when it was built in 1937.

Fifteen years ago, the complex was the scene of angry picketing by both the Ku Klux Klan and fair housing advocates over Buckingham's whites-only rental policies. Within 10 years, the apartments became racially mixed, with many Vietnamese refugees finding homes there.

In 1978, after several years of deterioration, the property was sold to James Klingbeil, an Ohio real estate developer. Klingbeil promised extensive renovations and started by sprucing up the grounds, planting azaleas and dogwoods, erecting split-rail fences and cleaning up the littered parking lots that some residents called "tin can alley."

As Klingveil remodeled vacant apartments, installing amenities like butcher block counters and no-frost freezers, the rents shot up, some increasing as much as $70 in two years.

But the community retained its international complexion and low-priced housing still was available for longtime residents and lower-income families.

Many units still are run down, with blistering paint, crumbling plaster and black mold creeping up the walls. While residents concede that an apartment in Buckingham is no palace, they cling to their homes mostly because of the reasonable rents and convenience to transportation, schools and shopping.

Organizing the fight against conversion to condominiums is the Buckingham Tenants Association, which opposes any displacement of current residents. One strategy tenant leaders are considering is forming a corporation, finding investors and buying the property themselves. A more probable tactic is to legally challenge any zoning changes that Stein applies for, said tenant activist John Shanley.

"Buckingham is really the Custer's last stand for low- and moderate-priced housing in Arlington County," Shanley said. "We are going to fight this to the last breath. We will use every legal mechanism we can."

The Tenants Association has called a meeting April 28 at Barrett Elementary School on Henderson Road, where leaders plan to issue a survey to find out exactly who lives in Buckingham and what they think about a condominium conversion.

"We'll inform the tenants of the rights they have. That should take about three and half minutes," laughed Susan Shanley, president of the tenants' group.

"I can understand the yelling and screaming," Stein said when asked about tenant opposition to a condominium conversion. "They can do whatever they want. But I didn't buy with the intent of keeping it like it is. In my opinion, it's substandard and in some form, it has to be recycled."