Officials of Washington Inner-City Self Help (WISH), an advocate group for low- and middle-income apartment dwellers, announced yesterday that they will administer $2 million in loans from a national insurance company to improve housing in the Columbia Heights area.

WISH officials said the mortgage funds from Aetna Life & Casualty will be used over the next several years to renovate apartment buildings and provide housing that will encourage residents to stay in the neighborhood.

Washington joins six other urban centers where Aetna is providing funds to improve the housing stock. Three years ago, company officials announced that they planned to invest a total of $15 million--by providing mortgages at below-market rates--in cities nationally because, they said, the deterioration of inner cities threatened the economy.

On hand at a press conference at the Calvary United Methodist Church on Columbia Road NW was Mayor Marion Barry, whose administration has been at odds with WISH over the speed with which the city has addressed some housing problems.

Barry, who pledged technical support for the Aetna-backed project, acknowledged past disagreements with WISH, but said: "You can be separated but never divided . . . . We love this marriage." One of the conditions for the insurance company loans is cooperation and assistance from the city government.

Aetna representative Alison G. Coolbrith said WISH was chosen to administer the program because, "We wanted an advocate group with strong grassroot support."

Under the arrangement, WISH will receive a $30,000 grant to hire a coordinator for the project. The group then will try to persuade landlords to take out Aetna mortgages to make repairs. In some cases, said WISH President Mamie Williams, WISH may also seek to help tenants buy the buildings they live in.

Williams said the group has targeted buildings at 1111 Lamont St. NW, 1424 R St. NW, 1445 Park Rd. NW and 1415 Newton St. NW for possible repairs, and will be talking with the properties' owners about participating in the project. She said it is not clear now how many people might eventually be included in the program.

Walter Muroff, owner of the building at 1111 Lamont St., said he had already scheduled talks with WISH officials to discuss the Aetna loans, which Coolbrith said typically range from $400,000 to $500,000 for a 50-unit building. Eight of the 12 apartments in Muroff's building are empty.