Every weekday morning about 7:30 Gladys Roy leaves her apartment at the Kenilworth Courts public housing project and walks to work, keeping an eye out for unmowed front yards in the sprawling complex. An unkempt lawn means she'll fine the tenant.

Crossing Quarles Street, where the junkies will hang out later in the day, Roy enters the offices of the Kenilworth-Parkside Resident Management Corp. and gets a whiff of the strong cleanser her staff uses to scour away the dirty residue of neglect.

She takes her seat behind the manager's desk. For two decades, the 52-year-old mother of nine was just one of the many welfare recipients living at Kenilworth. Now she runs the project and makes $17,000 a year doing it.

She and her staff have not converted Kenilworth Courts and its smaller sister project, Parkside, into anything like paradise. But they are making a case that tenants can fight poverty and perhaps run government housing better than the government can.

They are part of the District's first experiment in tenant management, in which the residents are managing and running their 25-year-old public housing complex. They appear to have halted somewhat the marked deterioration of their homes and, in so doing, have brought jobs to the project and income to its residents.

One of fewer than 10 such operations in the country, the resident management program at Kenilworth, begun in 1982, receives mostly favorable reviews from some housing experts and federal Housing and Urban Development officials. District housing officials and some Kenilworth residents are more restrained in their assessment, however, and they suggest that claims made by the resident managers and their supporters may be overstated.

"I think it is one of the most successful in the country, in my experience of going around the country and looking at seven or eight of them," said Robert Woodson, president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, an organization that studies housing and other issues.

"Our general view is that it is working," said Ken Beirne, general deputy assistant secretary for HUD's policy development and research department. "The question of all the reasons why it is working I don't think has been resolved yet."

The District's Housing and Community Development department, which gave the management contract to tenants, appears to have adopted a wait-and-see attitude toward resident management.

"It's a concept that we do support, and it's one we do want to work with residents to expand," said Madeline M. Petty, department director. " . . . On the surface it appears that it is something that we want to do."

Directed by a board of residents, the Kenilworth-Parkside managers head a staff of 30 residents hired to prepare the budget, collect the rent and perform the maintenance on the 464 units where 2,500 persons live in the far Northeast section of the District.

Through stricter enforcement, the resident managers have increased rent collections 179 percent, according to a report the American Enterprise Institute is compiling on the resident-management experiment.

On-site administrative costs have dropped 60 percent, the report says, and expenditures for routine maintenance have declined 20 percent since March 1982, when the residents took over from Central City Property Management Co., a private firm under contract with the city to run Kenilworth.

Yet even as the residents win battles, they discover new enemies. A recent increase in drug dealers and users, rousted by police from other areas of the city, demonstrates the affinity between public housing and some of society's most intractable ills.

And inside the project, not every resident is enamored of the new management headed by Kimi Gray, the 40-year-old spark plug and board chairman of the Kenilworth-Parkside Resident Management Corp.

Some residents, such as Jacqueline Robinson, think Kenilworth is much improved. "You could say it has picked up since the tenants took over," she said. But, then, her brother Garcia Robinson got a job with the resident management corporation.

Willie Mae James, who lives in a five-bedroom unit with 12 relatives, said, "I think it has gotten a little better but not too much. When they fix things, they don't stay fixed."

Her daughter, Neicy James, added, "They are too strict. They check up on you. They see who's living here. They put your rent up, if you make more money . . . . If they see trash in your yard, they fine you for it -- even if it's not yours."

Some tenants give the management good marks for maintenance but say they are frustrated by the crime problem. "No, they don't need those people resident managers ," said Eleanor Farley. "They need somebody to do something about the drugs in the street."

Fred Thomas, deputy police chief for the 6th District, said his officers arrested 50 to 60 persons on drug charges last month at Kenilworth. Most them were not residents. "They just come there to ply their trade," he said.

Thomas credits the residents with helping police discourage drug traffickers, who are attracted to the wooded areas and the sanctuary afforded by the nearby Maryland state line.

"If we didn't have help from them," he said, "it would be a heck of a lot worse situation."

Meanwhile officials at the city's housing department question whether the experiment is as successful as it is portrayed by Gray and the American Enterprise Institute.

Petty expressed doubt that the numbers cited by Gray and the institute are accurate and said her department was compiling its own statistics. She declined to release any data on rent collection, maintainance and administrative costs at Kenilworth-Parkside.

In similar experiments elsewhere, experts have reported tensions between tenant management groups and public housing authorities.

"There are some housing authorities that in fact have fear that they will lose control if they give residents more say in what's going on," said Clyde McHenry, a housing consultant who helped train the Kenilworth managers.

McHenry headed the New Orleans public housing authority and was later named an assistant secretary at HUD for public housing during the Carter administration.

Phil Abrams, a former HUD undersecretary, recalled that District housing officials in 1983 chose not to seek funds actively to completely renovate tenant-managed Kenilworth Courts. Abrams, the official responsible for doling out those funds, bypassed the city's list of priorities and designated $13.2 million for Kenilworth-Parkside.

"Mayor Barry had always been supportive of resident management ," said Abrams, now a real estate developer in Denver, "but the bureaucracy in the housing authority was somewhat reticent and, I think, somewhat threatened by the success of tenant managment. So they made the judgment, in applying for modernization funds, that there were other projects that were in worse shape than Kenilworth."

HUD has not released the funds for the modernization project, which was announced in October 1983. "The money is supposed to go to Kenilworth," a HUD spokesman said.

"But we are waiting to put in place a series of meetings that need to happen before decisions can be made."

When the rehabilitation project starts, the resident management corporation will become a partner with Gilbane/Smoot, a contractor and construction management corporation formed by the Gilbane Building Co. Gilbane/Smoot and the tenants will oversee the construction work.

The city's Housing and Community Development Department will retain the power to let contracts for the project, but Gray believes that the joint partnership will provide more jobs to Kenilworth residents.

Opened 25 years ago, Kenilworth was built to provide housing for some of the District residents displaced by the urban renewal of Southwest.

Parkside, a 42-unit housing pro-ject erected in 1940, was merged with Kenilworth Courts at the time of Kenilworth's opening.

In the years that followed, Kenilworth shared the fate of many big city public housing projects. Many welfare-dependent residents did not pay their rent regularly. The city failed to maintain the property properly, and it became run down. According to residents, there was little, if any, heat and hot water during 1979, 1980 and 1981. Rats were everywhere.

Meanwhile, Kimi Gray and her supporters were taking note of tenant groups in cities such as St. Louis, Boston and New Orleans that were experimenting in the 1970s with resident management of public housing.

Resident management, Gray came to believe, "gives residents back the responsibility of taking care of their community. It provides jobs. Maintenance calls are answered within 24 hours. The engineer lives on the grounds. When the heat goes out, he becomes cold, too."