Summer after summer, the air conditioning at the District's Claridge Towers housing project for senior citizens fails to work properly.

This summer is no exception, despite city efforts to correct the chronic problem.

To beat the unrelenting heat in the 10-story, 343-unit building at 1221 M St. NW, many elderly residents spend most of the day in the air-conditioned recreation room on the first floor of the building.

"The air conditioning has been off in my apartment all summer," said Lillie Bell Neal, 83, during a game of Bingo in the 30-foot-by-40-foot recreation room. "If I don't get up at night and change the fans so they blow on me, I think I would smother to death. It's just that hot."

"I stay in the recreation room and get nice and chilled before going to bed," said Sinclair Wylie, president of the Claridge Towers residents' council. "I dream that I'm in heaven, but then I wake up in hell."

"Every year we have problems with the air conditioning," said Wylie. "But this year has been the worse. It's so hot you feel like you can cook an egg in here."

Wylie said that during the recent hot spell, which abated only slightly yesterday, the air conditioning ran for only two days before the cooling unit broke down.

Wylie, who is confined to a wheelchair, said the situation at Claridge is worst for those residents who are sick, shut-in and unable to take the elevator down to the air-conditioned room.

"We have asked everyone we can for help including the mayor's office, but they are doing nothing," she said. "For most of us, this is our last home, and we want it to be comfortable. We don't want to have to fight these battles."

According to a spokesman for Bowland-Trane contractors in Rockville, which services the air-conditioning unit for Claridge Towers' apartments in addition to some of the other cooling units in city public housing projects, the Claridge system has consistently broken down for years since the city government installed it in 1969.

The Bowland-Trane spokesman, who asked not to be named, blamed inadequate maintenance by the city, particularly for elements that support the air-conditioning unit, such as boilers and pumps.

The city does not have an adequate maintenance budget, the spokesman said.

Sidney Glee, public housing administrator for the District's housing department, said the city is doing all it can to cool residents. But he acknowledges that the air-conditioning units for the city's 13 senior citizen public-housing buildings are inadequate.

"We replace about 30 to 40 motors a day in the buildings," Glee said. He also said the city expects to spend at least $200,000 this year on air-conditioning equipment.

Eric Jones, special assistant to City Council member John Wilson (D-Ward 2), said Claridge residents should be able to expect adequate air conditioning in their apartments by the end of the week.

"Claridge Towers has been one of our biggest problems this summer. We have gotten numerous complaints from residents who say they are becoming ill because of the heat. The heat is tough on them," he said.

Last month, the D.C. Medical Examiner's office ruled that the deaths of two Washington women were the result of hyperthermia, or an abnormally high body temperature, caused by the hot weather. One of the women was a resident of the city-run Regency House, 5201 Connecticut Ave.

The two deaths on July 18 and 19 are the first in the District directly related to heat this year, according to Dr. Stuart Dawson, deputy medical examiner.

High temperatures for those two days were 96 and 92 degrees.

Although this summer has been hotter than most, Glee said his office has received no more calls about the lack of air conditioning than in previous years. His office averages about 10 calls a day from the 2,713 public housing units for the elderly, he said.

"That's about normal," Glee said. "We usually tell them when it gets too hot to go to a neighbor's house. The elderly are pretty smart about keeping cool. It's the young people you have to worry about."

But for those Claridge residents who cannot find cool relief, summer, as 76-year-old Mary Henderson puts it, can be at best "miserable."

In Neal's seventh-floor apartment, two fans she borrowed from friends at church whirl uselessly, throwing out blasts of hot, muggy air.

She keeps the windows open, but that, too is useless. Her thermometer inside registers 91 degrees.

"There is no relief. This has to be the worst summer we have ever had," said Neal, who relies on a pacemaker and has respiratory problems.

"I can't take this heat," she said. "I used to sew, make quilts, cook, but the heat has won out. I wake up in the morning and thank God that I haven't died."