The 60 or so tenants who live in two modest, three-story brick buildings in the Garfield Heights neighborhood of Southeast Washington have a problem that neither they nor city officials have been able to solve: The apartments are deteriorating, and no owner can be found to make needed repairs.

It's not that the owner is missing or unwilling to act, but that, in an unusual case that has stumped all sides, no one admits to owning the buildings at all. There has been no one to collect rents or take care of the property at 2829 and 2841 Gainesville St. SE since late last year, and the buildings reflect that.

We've received numerous complaints about the buildings," said Sandra Robinson, public information officer for the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development. "It seems like all upkeep stopped Dec. 1," when confusion over ownership of the property began.

Since that time, several of the buildings' vacant apartments have become two-bedroom garbage bins and a place for the homeless to crawl in out of the weather.

In their own apartments, meanwhile, the tenants say they have had to put up with elusive hot water and heat, leaking natural gas, windows that won't close, running water that won't stop running and mice that leap from naked rafters.

Robinson says the housing department has helped tenants by supplying heating oil for the buildings' boilers and arranging trash pickups. Last week, it cleaned up the vacant apartments and boarded them shut. To cover the cost of all its work, the city has placed liens against the properties--296 liens since Oct. 1.

But substantial improvements have been slow in coming because of the difficulty in determining who is responsible for the two 12-unit apartment buildings. Inquiries lead to a maze of conflicting claims.

Washington real estate investor Owen C. Meddles says that he once owned the buildings, but that he no longer does. He says that after he failed to make good on a loan, the lender foreclosed on the properties in December. Once the foreclosure took place, Meddles said, the buildings were no longer his and his responsibility was at an end. Meddles orally identified the lender as "Pete Kaufman." City officials said they have been unable to determine the lender's address or even the spelling of his name.

Rockville lawyer Samuel Williamowsky, who represents the lender, says the foreclosure was never completed, "for reasons beyond our control." Thus, he contends, the buildings still belong to Meddles.

Williamowsky declines to reveal the identity of the lender, or to specify what interfered with the foreclosure.

In early December, Williamowsky, acting on behalf of his anonymous client, issued to the tenants 30-day notices to vacate the premises. The notices, however, were subsequently ruled invalid by the D.C. Rental Accommodations office, and so as far as the city is concerned, the tenants have a legal right to be there.

City lawyers recently decided to hold Williamowsky's client responsible for the condition of the apartment buildings. Robinson said the housing department is preparing a letter stating that no further action will be taken against Meddles.

She said problems stemming from such an ownership question have been rare in the area. "I never ran across it in terms of identifying an owner," she said.

To Evelyn Pearson, a tenant and spokesman for the families who live in the buildings, the ownership question is academic. With City Council members Wilhelmina J. Rolark (D-Ward 8) and Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4) in tow recently, she showed visitors through the decaying complex.

The rusting ribs of a raditor lay in a vacant apartment's bed of rubbish, surrounded by walls from which paint was peeling in sheets. A few feet away, another apartment was furnished with more garbage, a long-dead Christmas tree, a wrecked fan and an overturned sofa whose cushions spilled out over the badly broken floor tiles.

Pearson also illustrated another major concern in the buildings: security.

She put her weight against an unexpectedly locked bedroom door in a vacant apartment. "There must be street people in there," she said matter-of-factly. After jimmying the door, she discovered a couple sleeping fully clothed on a pallet made from their coats.

They asked not to be identifed. The woman said she was a go-go dancer at a nearby nightclub and had lived in the apartment about a year before. The man said he was her boyfriend. They said they both had been up late the preceding night and decided to sleep in the empty bedroom, whose air was thick with the stench of days-old garbage.

That lack of security worries Pearson, along with others who say they would like to clean up the apartments but are "afraid of who might be in there or what might come jumping out."

Deputy Police Chief James K. Kelly, of the 7th District, who later joined the building tour, said his officers cannot respond to complaints that vagrants are in the buildings unless they come from the buildings' owner or manager.

"What we are saying is that we have no legal right to respond ," he said. "We have to have a complaintant in order to do something about a situation such as this."

Gwendolyn Van Horn, who lives in one of the apartment building's two-bedroom apartments with her eight children, said tenants are caught in a web of big business, lost to themselves to "fend for their lives . . . in seeking safe, sanitary and healthy living conditions."

Barbara Newsome, 25, says she has been fending for herself in the 2829 Gainesville apartment building for about seven years. The hardest times have come in the last several months.

Last week she stood on drenched newspapers spread out over her bedroom floor. She said leaking pipes keep her floors wet and, because of that, her two young sons "have colds a lot; they're suffering."

Newsome, single and unemployed, says she stays there because she has nowhere else to go. "You don't have any choice sometimes."