Bessie Moore sat by helplessly yesterday in the auction room of Thomas J. Owen & Son downtown and watched as the 66-unit Southeast apartment complex where she has lived for 15 years was sold at a foreclosure sale.

It was the third time in its 15-year existence that the complex of buildings, known as Cole Gardens, had changed hands at a foreclosure sale. It was tentatively purchased by Don C. Hawkins, of 436 M St. SW., who said he was a real estate broker. Hawkins must pay off more than $200,000 in outstanding liens and mortgages in 30 days to become the legal owner of the property.

The plight of the garden apartment complex at 2800 Jasper Rd. is an extreme example of the financial problems faced by a growing number of apartment building owners in Southeast Washington who have stopped maintaining their buildings because they say they cannot make a profit. Tenants, most earning low and moderate incomes, then organize rent strikes to force the landlord to improve conditions.

The only people who really want Cole Gardens are some of the tenants who have been cleaning and maintaining the buildings since January when they began a rent strike against the landlord. With the city's severe shortage of low-cost housing, many feel their only protection against displacement is to become the owners of their complex. With annual incomes of generally less than $10,000 each, however, the tenants could not raise the $25,000 deposit needed yesterday to bid on the buildings.

"We knew we didn't have it," said Moore, noting that it would have cost each household nearly $400 to raise the $25,000, "and they can't afford that after they pay the rent," which ranges from $183 to $240 a month.

Moore said city officials could also offer no assistance. Last winter, the city's housing department spent at least $61,385 making emergency repairs at Cole Gardens, such as installing 11 new furnaces, fixing numerous pipes and replacing many faulty bathroom sinks and kitchen stoves. Those repair costs are included in the liens against the property.

Hawkins said he did not want the buildings and purchased them only because he had lent the former owner $65,000 and the payments had become delinquent. As the second mortgage holder, Hawkins said the only way to get his money back was to foreclose, become the new owner, then try to sell the buildings.

Under city law, Hawkins must offer the tenants a chance to buy the building before he can sell to anyone else.