Tenants at one of Washington's bleakest public housing projects are taking over the property's management in an unprecedented self-help effort that top city officials hope will inspire similar takeovers by more of the city's 70,000 public housing residents.

Beginning this week, residents of Kenilworth Courts are performing all the same services, and facing all the same complaints and problems, as the private management firm that was on contract to the city. They will be operating the 464-unit project on a budget of $250,000, netted from rents and a government subsidy.

"You've got to remember that most of us are people who never had to make a real decision before in our lives," said Kimi Gray, the sparkplug behind the tenant takeover of the project in far Northeast D.C. "In the past, all we had to do was call up and complain to the office. Now, we are the office."

Tenant staff members will be collecting rents, sending out notices to those who are late, fielding persistent calls about on-again, off-again heat and hot water, inspecting apartments and hallways for damage and abuse, smoothing frayed relations between neighbors and trying to convince some 3,200 poor people that they can and should spend some time and effort making their government-provided home a decent place to live.

They're also trying some things that the former managers never even attempted, such as forming a cooperative grocery market to be run in a vacant basement room by a mother-and-son team of residents who now operate out of a van, and resuming operation of laundry rooms closed down several years ago because of tenant vandalism.

The new managers are seeking to impose a Sunday night curfew on all school-age children so they will be up on time for classes on Mondays, and they will fine parents for allowing small children to deposit trash outside of tall receptacles, as well as for breaking windows or otherwise damaging the buildings. They are rebuilding what Gray calls "our wreck of a rec room," because "it's no use to tell the kids they can't play in the halls if they don't have another place to play."

Unlike their predecessors, the new managers live at Kenilworth Courts and share a vested interest with the rest of the tenants. "They're sympathetic to the problems because they live here and if the heat or hot water is off for us, it's off for them too," observed Vera Anderson, a mother of nine who has lived at the project for eight years.

Besides giving the tenants direct control of Kenilworth Courts and the opportunity to improve their own surroundings, the takeover is designed to provide them with opportunities for jobs, training, education and services they never had before.

Gray, a longtime resident of Kenilworth Courts and a well-known civic activist, is chairwoman of the nonprofit corporation formed by the tenants to take over control of the project from a private management firm.

"Trips me out," Gray said with a giggle, "chairman of the board!" She quickly pointed out the unorthodox composition of the rest of the board: "three college students between the ages of 22 and 25, two mothers on welfare, two working mothers and one housewife with a working husband."

"Some government programs are hope killers," said Robert Moore, director of the city's Department of Housing and Community Development. "They set low horizons beyond which people don't believe they can move. We want to raise their horizons. And that's what's already happening at Kenilworth Courts."

The next city housing project scheduled for a tenant takeover is James Creek, on Half Street SW. Currently undergoing extensive renovation, it will come under tenant management as soon as the work is finished, Moore said. All painting of apartments and moving of tenants at James Creek is to be done by tenant-formed corporations under contract to the city.

City Council member H.R. Crawford, whose Ward 7 encompasses Kenilworth, termed the takeover there "a fantastic job." Crawford, himself a property manager with a reputation for toughness, praised the tenants for exhibiting "discipline, stability and initiative."

Crawford added that he is planning "a major proposal" to place before the council early this year that would provide for training up to 25 percent of all public housing tenants in "real government jobs, up to GS 9, preparing them for work in the projects."

Gray and some of her neighbors have been talking, and dreaming, about managing their home for more than five years. Tenant-management had never been tried in the District, but there were examples in New Orleans, St. Louis, Boston and Newark. In May 1980, a small group of Kenilworth tenants traveled to St. Louis and New Orleans, at D.C. expense and under Moore's sponsorship, and came away impressed by what they'd seen--multimillion-dollar housing projects managed successfully by their residents.

The next step after the takeover, Moore said, is for the tenants to complete a survey for a partial rehabilitation. "We're not talking about anything massive," Moore said, "just fixing up what's already in place as the tenants and we see fit."

Although the formal contract between the city and the tenants' corporation is expected to be signed next week, a number of programs tied to tenant management are already functioning.

"We've got five mothers on public welfare who've become cleaning women," Gray noted, folding down the small finger on her left hand. She folded down additional fingers as she counted maintenance men, management office personnel and another 15 staff members for the new day-care center. "The only people working on the property who aren't residents are the licensed engineer, plumber and electrician," she said with an obvious touch of pride.

According to Gray, one goal of the tenant takeover at Kenilworth Courts is to develop expertise among resident employes and then send them out into other projects, rather than allowing them to create sinecures for themselves.

She said that all staff members who have not graduated from high school are required to earn a diploma within nine months or risk losing their jobs. A Kenilworth-based organization, College Here We Come, has developed a high school equivalency program in conjunction with the University of the District of Columbia, just for that purpose.

As is the case at most public housing projects in the District, the bulk of households at Kenilworth Courts are headed by women. Chief among their concerns, several of them said in interviews, is the ease of access their children have to narcotics. And so, Gray and her fellow board members have taken on the drug pushers. They started by inviting them to a meeting--and, Gray said, the pushers came.

"We did our homework: I read off from a list--'We have your street name, your real name, your girlfriend, your address, your license number. Now, we don't think your business is to our advantage. So, get off the property or we'll take this information to the police.' Tripped me out; they said, 'Miss Kimi, you're right.' And they're gone."

At Gray's urging, D. C. Commissioner for Social Services Audrey Rowe visited Kenilworth Courts a year ago and came away convinced that tenants could be trained to do basic social service work at the project. She began on the day-care center, Rowe said, because "it will lead to good role models for young girls in the project."

In a less formal way, some other residents have begun efforts to create models for their neighbors to emulate. Showing a visitor around her immaculately furnished and spotlessly clean apartment, set amidst flawlessly groomed lawns, shrubs and beds of ivy, Thelma Bacon said quietly, "I like to keep my place up and I thought I could be a good example to those who don't know how. I feel that if the government gives me a place to live, I should give something back."

Bacon, 50, who has raised seven children and suffers from severe asthma, said she learned of Gray's dream of residents managing Kenilworth Courts when she attended a tenant council meeting a few years ago. "I thought it was such a good idea and I decided to become involved," she recalled.

Bacon is now a "court captain," meaning she has responsibility to encourage the occupants of eight garden-style apartments to keep their homes neat and clean. "If I see the grass isn't cut, my son and I go out to do it," she said. "But usually when we go out and cut our own, other mothers and children come out and clean and cut, too. It's wonderful."