The Alexandria City Council yesterday postponed a vote on its thorniest housing problem in years: whether to approve the sale of $11.1 million in tax-exempt bonds for a developer who plans to displace most of the current tenants of the Abingdon Apartments.

"It's a difficult problem because the Abingdon has become a symbol," said Mayor Charles E. Beatley, who voted with the council yesterday to defer action on the bonding question until May 14, a week after the May 7 City Council elections.

"What happens to the Abingdon may very well happen to the other apartment buildings" constructed during the post-World War II building boom, Beatley said. "Are we going to let them run down, or are we going to let a developer rehab them? There are no easy answers."

The Abingdon is the city's first occupied building for which a developer has requested tax-free bonds for renovation. Without the bonds, the council fears, developers will convert the 43-year-old Abingdon into more profitable condominiums and further shrink the diminishing supply of rental units.

A 242-unit complex off the George Washington Parkway, the Abingdon has spotlighted the national problem of finding affordable rental housing for low-income tenants. If the council approves the tax-exempt bonds for the developer, John Freeman and The Investment Group, up to 80 percent of the current tenants likely will leave because they will not be able to afford the new higher rents.

In Alexandria, where there is a 0.87 percent vacancy rate, finding affordable housing on low wages is nearly impossible. And the problem is not confined to Alexandria. Federal funds for subsidized housing have been cut 98 percent in the past five years.

Yesterday, the eight red-brick Abingdon buildings attracted the attention of federal housing officials who attended the City Council meeting.

"There is a whole generation of apartment dwellers who are facing displacement because the building is up for rehabiliation or conversion," said William A. Whiteside, the executive director of Neighborhood Reinvestment, a congressionally chartered public corporation. "If we come up with some creative answers for Abingdon, we may be able to duplicate them elsewhere."

Whiteside and other housing groups and nonprofit foundations pledged yesterday to pool resources in the hope of coming up with enough money to help the current tenants purchase Abingdon.

"Basically, we voted to give the tenants 30 days to try to see if they could come up with the money to buy the apartment," said council member Robert L. Calhoun. "But we're talking about a lot of money. It's going to be difficult."

"I don't know were we can come up with $6 or $8 million in a month," said Abingdon tenant Louis E. Elliott, 39. "But we'll try everything. We don't want to leave here. It's our home."

Elliott, who works at National Airport unloading cargo, said he could not afford to live at the Abingdon under the new proposal, which would raise his current monthly rent of $340 for his one-bedroom unit to $418 plus utilities if he were able to receive one of the 48 subsized units. The remaining one-bedroom units would be rented at $625 a month after renovation.

"Alexandria is supposed to be an All-America City," Elliott said, referring to the national award the city received last month. "I came to see if they would give the poor a chance for their slice of the pie . . . . I'll be back next month, too."