At the hub of the whirling debate over rent control in the District is a small city agency known as the Rental Accommodations and Conversions Division, a target of animosity for some, a symbol of protection for others and an administrative headache for most.

Out of offices at 614 H St. NW, with a staff of 28 and budget of $1.4 million, the rental division approves rent increase requests from landlords, decides on tenant petitions for lower rents or increased services, assesses fines against landlords who illegally raise rents, and generally tries to administer the city's rent control rules for about 120,000 rental housing units in the District.

Landlords complain that the agency favors tenants who want their rents rolled back. Tenants say the procedures favor landlords who want to charge illegal rents or cut services. Both sides say while the office has improved, it is still something of an administrative bottleneck where it takes too long to get cases resolved.

Many argue that a lack of resources results in unnecessary delays in cases, inconsistency in decisions, lost records and frustration for landlords and tenants.

"It's wonderful for law firms like ours," said Roger Luchs, an attorney with King & Nordlinger, of procedures and delays at the rental agency, where he often represents landlords. "But it frustrates landlords and costs them a lot of money."

Yet most of those involved with rent control cases say there has been substantial improvement in recent years, and they universally seem to give high marks to Rent Administrator John Hampton, a no-nonsense person who got rid of a large backlog of cases he inherited when he came to the job in 1983. He has worked in the office since its inception 10 years ago.

The Rental Accommodations and Conversions Division, formerly the independent Rental Accommodations Office but reorganized two years ago to become a part of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, draws fire from landlords in particular.

"The vast, vast majority of the decisions favor the tenants. There is little consistency in the decisions," said Donald R. Slatton, executive vice president of the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington and the designated spokesman for the landlords.

Tenant groups argue that landlords have the resources to find loopholes in the law, get legal representation and delay decisions by getting continuances on hearing dates. Delays favor the landlords, these groups say, because tenants often represent themselves and have to take time off from work to attend official proceedings.

"Often the tenant doesn't understand the system or the language or the ramifications," said Mark Matthias, a community organizer with Washington Innercity Self Help (WISH). "It puts them at a real big disadvantage."

Still, said Bob Hulteen of the Southern Columbia Heights Tenants Union, "tenants wouldn't have their day in court if the rental agency didn't exist."

An estimated 95 percent of the city's landlords impose the annual rent increases that are permitted automatically and pegged to the area's consumer price index but have a 10 percent ceiling. A landlord can ask the city to approve a "hardship petition" for a higher increase if the rate of return on equity is lower than that allowed by the law. The rental division determines if the landlord did the figuring correctly, and tenants can dispute the basis on which the calculations were made.

If a tenant believes that his or her rent level is too high or the landlord is not providing services that were promised, the tenant can file a petition asking for relief. The office handled a total of 888 landlord and tenant petitions during the year that ended last September, and it is expected to handle an estimated 1,200 petitions this year, according to city budget figures.

The petitions are heard by one of five hearing examiners. They take testimony from tenants and landlords and must make a decision within 120 days. Either side can appeal the decision to the three-member Rental Housing Commission and from there to the D.C. Court of Appeals.

About 97 percent of the landlords' hardship petitions are granted, but the only issue involved is whether the numbers were calculated properly, rent administrator Hampton said. Fifty-three percent of the tenant petitions result in judgments that favor the tenant, he said.

"Tenants have problems with the formality of the procedures. They have to prove their allegations, and sometimes . . . the emotion far outweighs the evidence," said Hampton.

Now, about 15 percent of the cases are appealed, compared with 25 percent in 1981, he said.

The cases are handled in an unbiased way, Hampton said. He acknowledged that hearing examiners have not had easy access to each others' opinions and have had no organized way to look at precedents, but he said the office is developing a manual that would permit easy cross-referencing of cases.

Tenants and landlords have their examples of frustration.

Hulteen, whose group represents tenants in Northwest, said that in one case in which he was involved the hearing examiner made the decision well within the 120 days allotted, but it took another four months to get the decision typed.

Gottlieb Simon, staff person for the Southwest-Southeast Advisory Neighborhood Commission and former president of the Capitol Park Plaza Tenant Association in Southwest, said one petition the tenant group filed in 1980 was dismissed because the old Rental Accommodations Office sent the hearing notice to a nonexistent address and the tenants did not attend the hearing. The tenants eventually got a rehearing on that petition, he said.

That and a tenant petition filed in 1979 are still pending, he said, but the group recently got an initial decision on a third petition filed just last September, which shows improvement in the process, Simon said.

"Things are running more smoothly," he said, though it still takes long hours of tenants' time to bring a case.

Flan Fry, who represented herself and other tenants of her building on 18th Street NW, said they filed their petition last June and got their decision in January. Said Fry, "That was a long delay, in our minds," but she added that the hearings required time for a number of tenants to testify and for translations of testimony to be made for several Spanish-speaking tenants.

"I think it's fair; I think it's exhausting. I think there should be an easier way," concluded Fry, who said that she had to take about five days of vacation time from her federal government job to deal with the case.

Richard Luchs, who works with his brother at King & Nordlinger, agreed with several tenants' groups that there are not enough typists and support staff members to carry the load of decisions. In addition, the two Luches said that the agency seems to be unable to get its mailings out on time.

"Routinely, attorneys for landlords and tenants don't get copies of decisions in the mail," said Roger Luchs. "Decisions dated a month or two ago would show up."

Hampton said the complaints about typing problems don't "ring true" to him and that all cases are being processed within the statutory time limits.

Hampton said some of the 47 positions assigned to his office actually are elsewhere, where some of the functions of the old rental agency have been transferred, and that his staff actually is 28. He is to get two more staff members under the fiscal 1986 budget request, he said.

That budget anticipates a change in the base rent level, from which all rent increases are calculated, from 1973 to 1980, to help simplify administration. It also expected new rent control legislation to allow a one-time review of rent levels, allowing challenges to any increase allowed between 1973 and 1980, and it said this would generate an estimated 1,300 challenges.

This would require "considerable overtime" for the rental division, it said.

Landlords say changing the base would help them substantially by requiring them to document past increases only to 1980, rather than to 1973 as they must do now unless they have officially justified them in a previous rental division proceeding.

But Richard Luchs predicted that the one-time review would be a disaster because of increased paper work.

"It will be years before they the challenges are resolved," he said. "We'll be back to where we were a few years ago when it took nine months just to get an initial decision" from a hearing examiner.

A landlord or tenant who is dissatisfied with a rental agency decision can appeal to the rent commission, which is made up of two attorneys and one accountant. But the commission is frequently divided on cases, according to those who have watched it.

City Council member John Ray (D-At Large) said this divisiveness on the commission is one of the major complaints he has heard about the administration of the rent control law and that he believes this can lead to confusion among those below the commission who are trying to make administrative decisions.

Council member John Wilson (D-Ward 2) said the commission works better now than when it had a tenant member and an industry member, a time when and one member could stay away to prevent a quorum and delay decisions. But he said he would like to see the commission consist of three lawyers.

Hampton said the commission simply goes through a normal process of discussing decisions and that this does not create administrative problems.

Hampton has a vision of landlords and tenants eventually seeing each other not as antagonists but as people with common interests. Then, negotiation could replace regulation: "If perceptions changed, there wouldn't be a need for rent control."