Lee Shipman's household is never at rest. Her son and three daughters are an affectionate and lively group who do all the cooking and whose picture-plastered rooms are never touched by their mother.

But then, they are not children. Andrew is 20, Anna Ruth is 23, Dena is 24 and Lee Ella is 27. They are among an increasing number of young people who cannot afford to rent an apartment, once the symbol of frugal living but today almost an anachronism.

"It reminds me of the Depression, when we all came home to live with Grandmother," said Lee Shipman, 57, whose children returned, after various periods of time on their own, to the family's five-bedroom house in the western Bethesda community of Bannockburn.

Ten or 15 years ago, they might have been renting inexpensive apartments and saving money to buy a house. But today, as the conversion of apartments to condominiums in Montgomery County continues to outpace the construction of new units, and the demand for scarce apartments is driving up rents, the apartment lifestyle is no longer a way for the young to live cheaply.

"There's very little to be had," said Lee Ella Shipman. "If you're single, you share a room or house -- most people I know share. At this point for me, because I'm not making any money at my venture, it's the only choice I have."

The eldest Shipman daughter paints designs on T-shirts and sweatshirts and sells them through local boutiques, an enterprise that has not yet returned her $500 investment.

"If I had to pay rent, I would never be able to try to start my own business," she said.

"It's a luxury and we appreciate it," said Anna Ruth, who babysits and manages her sister's business. "I always keep in mind that this is my mother and father's house, so I don't take showers at 3 in the morning."

The house easily accomodates the entire troupe, and when grandfather John A. Spanogle, 84, joins them in the fall, Anna and Dena will be doubling up. The rambling split-level, designed by Shipman and perched high on a steep embankment, is filled with the collections of a family of collectors. The colored bottles saved by their father Karl Shipman line shelf after shelf in front of the windows. Odd pieces of theater sets from Dena's work as a stage manager hang on the walls and are propped in corners.

"A lot of my friends, their parents kick them out so they have to move to Gaithersburg," said Montgomery College student Andrew, who never lets guests see his room. "They like this area and the people, but they can't affort to stay here."

"I never ask them for money," said their father, a packing supply salesman. "I enjoy having them here -- they're nice people."

Montgomery County lost about 9,700 apartments to condominium conversions from 1971 through last July, leaving 57,000 rental units, less than 25 percent of the total housing stock in the county. By comparison, Fairfax County, Va., another wealthy suburb, lost 6,300 units to condominiums in the same period and is left with about 28 percent of its housing stock in apartments.

Nationwide, rentals comprise 35 percent of all housing and vacancy rates are around 5 percent, the lowest recorded rates ever, according to a comptroller general's report to Congress on the crisis in rental housing.

In Montgomery County, the vacancy rate is below 3 percent, meaning that at the end of any given month, fewer than 3 percent of the apartments are vacant.

"That's practically nothing. It's almost what it takes to convert from one tenant to the next," said Housing Opportunities Commission director Bernard Tetreault.

The decline of rental housing, in Montgomery County as in the rest of the nation, is due to the high costs of land, financing, construction and, since the oil embargo of 1973, operations.

"I don't have a member in the rental business who wants to stay in it," said John O'Neill, vice president of the Washington area Apartment and Office Building Association. "Return has dropped like a rock. In 1972 the average apartment owner could take home 11 cents as profit out of every rent dollar after mortage, costs and taxes. In 1980 he took 3 1/2 to 4 cents home."

The comptroller general's report said rent increases of 20 to 25 percent would be necessary to stimulate new investment in the multifamily rental market. Developers in Montgomery County say they would have to charge $650 a month plus utilities for a one-bedroom apartment if they built it with private financing.

The federal government was able to offset the effect of rising interest rates through its tandem financing program, begun in 1976. It has provided loans at 7 1/2 percent interest if 20 percent of the units were designated for tenants receiving rent subsidies. The Artery Organization, one of the largest builders of rental housing in the Washington area, built all its 3,200 rental units since 1976 with tandem financing.

Those funds ran out in January, however, and no decision has been made on what, if anything, will take its place. "The administration feels that with its new economic program, interest rates will come down and it will be possible to finance new construction without tandem financing," said Elliot Bernold, director of housing in the Washington, D.C.., area for the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In addition, the Reagan administration is proposing that the number of subsidized apartments also be cut back sharply, from 275,000 units nationwide to 175,000.

Local governments are trying to put legal reins on conversions to protect the remaining renters. The Maryland General Assembly passed a condominium bill this year that allows income-eligible elderly persons who have lived in a building for at least one year to continue renting their apartments for three years after any conversion to condominiums. The bill also gives the counties the right of first refusal on a building if the county agrees to keep it as a rental for three years, and requires developers to pay up to $750 in moving expenses for tenants who decide not to purchase their apartments.

Montgomery County has passed its own condominium legislation, giving a tenants association or the local Housing Opportunities Commission the right of first refusal on the sale of a building, and levying a 4 percent conversion tax on developers that will be used toward financing low-interest loans for builders of new rental housing.

Montgomery County officials are ambivalent about rentals and sensitive to the hardships of the elderly. But neither do they want to be in the shoes of Prince George's County, which has 50 percent of its housing stock in rentals and all the attendant complexities brought on by a transient and lower-income population.

"I really think that the county feels there are enough renters and apartments and if you want to rent and can't, go someplace else. Renters aren't desired," said Barbara Schiller, president of the Montgomery County Tenant Association who, after 12 years as a renter, recently bought a home in Rockville.

"No one has determined how much rental is ideal for this country," said Bett Lewis, a senior planner in the Office of Housing and Community Development. "Given the location and the land values, the most efficient market use tends to be made of the land, and rentals are not market-efficient today."

She said she believed the county had a commitment to renters, but that local jurisdictions simply did not have the resources to deal with the problem. "The 4 percent tax will help us get some rental units, but it's a drop in the bucket," she added.

The county has contracted with a market and opinion research firm, Hollander Cohen Associates Inc., to find out what happens to people when a building is converted to a condominium. The Baltimore firm is studying seven conversions to see who bought the units, whether the new residents were owners or renters and where the former renters went. Results of the $28,000 study are expected at the end of May.

County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist said he believed Montgomery's rent-control laws encouraged conversions because landlords could not raise rents enough to make a profit. He allowed those laws to expire at the end of January.

The end of rent control highlighted the plight of the older apartment dwellers on fixed incomes, who could not pay sudden rent increases. Although Gilchrist sought voluntary agreements from landlords not to increase rents more than 15 percent on formerly controlled apartments and 10 percent on others, a large number of tenants faced much higher rents.

The county is helping some of them pay their rents through a Hardship Rental Assistance program. Individuals who qualify by income can receive as much as $75 per month to cover increases beyond 10 percent. The program, which began in 1979, has been getting 30 applications a day since rent control laws were lifted, compared with two or three applicants a day previously.

Ray Lindsey is one those applicants.

At 66, he retired and has been living alone in his Silver Spring apartment 12 years. When rent control expired, his rent went from $169 to $275 a month.

The paint on the pillars at the entrance to the two-story brick building is peeling, and there is no light in the stairway that leads down one flight to his apartment. Lindsey, who lost his right hand in a meat grinder at th age of 10, takes a flashlight with him when he goes out.

Rain seeps into the back room, and the one-bedroom apartment has not been painted since Lindsey moved in.

"Around the first of April my rent always goes up, but I didn't have any idea it would be this much, so I called the landlord. He told me, 'If you move out of that apartment, I can rent it for $330.' He told me to call about the rental assistance.

"It hurts my pride a little bit, but I paid taxes in the state of Maryland for 20 years, so maybe they ought to pay me back a little," said Lindsey, who worked those 20 years in Hecht's mailroom.

There is not much room for Lindsey to cut back. He eats his two meals a day at the Tasty Diner, just across the street on Georgia avenue. He's thinking about selling his car and he may even have to learn to cook, something he has never done before.

"I'd like to go back to work, maybe 15 to 20 hours a week if I cold find something. I don't enjoy retirement at all," he said. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, By Brian Griffin For The Washington Post; Pictures 1 and 2, Ray Lindsey may have to apply for rental assistance after his rent went up by more than $100 a month; while the Shipman family beat the rent race by all living together. Standing, Anna Ruth, Andrew and Lee Ella.Seated are Karl and Lee. Photos By Vanessa Barnes Hillian -- The Washington Post