After 20 years of living with periodic bouts of rat infestations, no hot water or heat, leaky faucets and little response from city officials, Eunice Samuels got fed up.

Two years ago she and five friends, all public housing tenants, sued the District of Columbia government. And recently, to the great surprise of city officials, they won a major part of their legal battle for improvements in their accommodations.

A federal appellate court ruled earlier this month that public housing tenants have the right to sue government housing officials. That decision overturned an earlier ruling, rendered 14 months ago by a lower court, that said the women did not have the right to sue city officials because they were publicly assisted tenants.

The decision was a major victory for the city's approximately 12,000 public housing tenants. The overwhelming majority of public housing residents receive government assistance and are either elderly women or single mothers with small children.

"It's a significant ruling," said Edward Schwab, assistant corporation counsel and one of several attorneys representing the District in the case, "because it does give beneficiaries of these federal programs the right to enforce them through a federal ruling."

Both Schwab and Joel Pollin, attorney for the tenants, said the ruling may be the first in the country to grant public housing residents the legal right to challenge local and federal government officials.

"I think it's ridiculous that we had to go through all this process to get something that city housing officials should have done in the first place," said Annie Simmons, one of the women involved in the suit.

Four of the six women who originally filed charges against the city lived at Lincoln Heights Dwellings, a sprawling, rundown project of 440 units at Eads Place and 50th Street SE. A fifth lived at Fort Dupont Dwellings, on Ridge Road in Southeast, and a sixth in Syphax Dwelling in Southwest.

"It was a terrible experience for me," said Mary Hawkins, a mother of four. "I wouldn't want to go through it again. The worst part for me was the rats, roaches and not having hot water. It was just a horrible way to live."

"It all started because we didn't have hot water, on and off, for two years," said Simmons. "I would call them city housing officials almost on a daily basis and they keep saying 'we're working on it,' but nothing was ever done."

In December 1982, Lorraine Warren, one of the original plaintiffs in the case, suggested they talk to a lawyer. Pollin initially met with about 15 residents of Lincoln Heights who said they had no heat or hot water.

"I first advised them to follow the proper grievence proceedure by filing complaints with the property manager at Lincoln Heights," explained Pollin. "When they didn't get any response we filed the lawsuit in June of 1983."

A year later a lower court ruled that the tenantsdidn't have the right to force city officials to comply with a federal law that spells out how tenant greivances are handled, according to Pollin.

"There was no question that the HUD federal Department of Housing and Urban Developement regulations were on the books" requiring the city to respond to tenant complaints, Pollin said. "The question was whether tenants were entitled to enforce those regulations; HUD was designed to enforce the regulations."

Although the women wanted to drop the case several times, Pollin urged them to keep up the fight. "I was on the phone with him Pollin in tears many times," said Samuels, "but he'd always calm me down and talk me into going on with it."

Warren, who lived at Fort Dupont, and Bernice Gadsden, who lived in Syphax, did drop out after the lower court ruling.

Pollin says the case is "far from over." It will now go back to the lower court and a judge must determine if the city failed to comply with the federally regulated greivance process, which includes holding public hearings when tenants file complaints.

Schwab said he is not sure how the District's housing officials will plead in the case. "They have never had to respond to those allegations and I'm not sure what they're going to do on that."

In the meantime Samuels, Simmons and Hawkins have each moved into one of 86 units at Lincoln Heights that have been renovated and outfitted with new kitchens bathrooms, windows and doors.

"I think this decison gives public housing residents an important tool to assist them in removing substandard housing conditions," Pollin said. "I think its success will be dependent on how vigorously they use that tool."