Three weeks ago, Ercilia Fuentes and her three children moved from their unit in Arlington's Lee Gardens to the Buckingham Apartments a few miles away.

They had not planned to move, but they were given little choice. Fuentes and her children were one of 138 families whose eviction notices required that they leave Lee Gardens by the end of May so the first phase of a hotly debated renovation of the complex could begin. Construction started this month on 163 apartments in the 961-unit complex off Rte. 50.

Ever since the Artery Organization purchased Lee Gardens in November and proposed an upscale renovation, there has been confusion and contention over the fate of the estimated 3,000 mostly low-income, Hispanic tenants being forced to find other housing in an area where moderately priced rental units are scarce.

A spokesman for Artery said the Bethesda-based firm has made extensive efforts to find suitable replacement housing.

"If {tenants} are working with us in good faith, we've always been able to find an alternative housing situation for them," said Artery vice president Daniel R. Mackesey.

Mackesey said 109 Lee Gardens families have used the company's relocation services. Of that group, he said, 90 have remained in Northern Virginia, 68 of them in Arlington. Six have moved to Maryland, five to the District, three to other states and five to other countries, he said.

Tenants who voluntarily leave are given cash payments of up to $1,000, depending on income, apartment size and whether they are elderly or disabled. They are offered relocation advice from bilingual counselors.

But tenant representatives say relocation efforts have been marred by questionable tactics. "Many people were pushed to take apartments that were very expensive," said Magda Gotts, a tenant organizer. Many are paying in excess of $200 a month more than they did at Lee Gardens, she said.

Some tenants have said they were encouraged to understate the size of their families when applying for a new apartment. "We were told by a man who works for the relocation office to say that we only had one child and not two children when we applied for apartments," said Julieta Nelson.

Nelson and two other tenants made the charges in affidavits filed in U.S. District Court in Alexandria last week in one of two lawsuits involving the tenant displacement. Artery spokesman Mackesey said he has investigated the charges and is "confident it did not happen. We do not advise those individuals to lie on their applications."

Fuentes, whose name was supplied to a reporter by Artery, said no pressure tactics were used to get her to take her new apartment at the Buckingham Apartments even though doing so meant a hefty rent boost.

She says her new apartment is cleaner and safer than her former apartment at Lee Gardens. "I'm happy here," she said. "Here, they clear the trash all the time, they shampoo the steps. It's very clean." At Lee Gardens, "people broke my windows. I was scared every night."

But Fuentes' move has caused a financial strain. "The rent, it's very much," she said. Her two-bedroom unit at the Buckingham complex costs $650 a month, not including electricity. At Lee Gardens, Fuentes paid $450 a month for a one-bedroom apartment, utilities included.

Fuentes said she is paid about $1,000 a month as a night shift housekeeper at The Madison hotel in the District and is looking for a second job. "I'm going to do my best to afford the rent," she said.

Some Lee Gardens residents have temporarily given up the search for a home of their own. Geoconda M. Zarzeno said she and her husband looked but were unable to find a suitable apartment. "We're going to live with my mother," she said.

At least one tenant has been asked to move back in after the renovations. "I was told that I was a desirable tenant and that my income met the qualifications" for the renovated units, said Harry W. Stubbs, whose reported income from a job with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and from an inheritance is more than double what most Lee Gardens tenants receive, according to a recent survey commissioned by the nonprofit Arlington Housing Corp.

Stubbs said he was told that if he decided to move back to Lee Gardens he would have to submit a copy of his previous year's tax forms with his rental application. "This is going to be a little yuppie heaven," he said, adding that he does not plan to move back.

Nine families occupying some of the 163 units slated for the first round of renovations are being allowed to stay at Lee Gardens until August; they had asked for an extension.

But the units to which they have been relocated are in poor condition, and little effort has been made to accommodate the families' needs, said Elaine Curry-Smithson, director of Tenants of Arlington County, a nonprofit lobbying group.

For instance, the family of a man with back problems asked for a first-floor apartment but was given a third-floor unit, Curry-Smithson said, and an elderly diabetic woman who asked for a ground-floor unit was given one on the second floor.

Artery spokesman Mackesey said the firm has "tried to accommodate the people as best we could with the resources on hand."

Albert C. Eisenberg, chairman of the county board, said he has asked for a review of county tenant assistance programs to see if more counseling or other support can be provided. Eisenberg's action follows the death of a longtime Lee Gardens tenant, whose body was found recently in her apartment. Police have ruled the elderly woman's death a suicide.

A tenant in the same building as the woman said residents had received eviction notices for the end of August; Eisenberg said he was told that the woman had been despondent over "the situation at Lee Gardens."

The fate of the tenants has been at issue for nine months, "an extraordinarily long period of time for a difficult and uncertain situation," Eisenberg said.

Some former Lee Gardens tenants have been evicted from their new homes.

Last month, two were evicted from the Washington & Lee Apartments in Arlington for understating the number of people living in their units, said Lory Thompson, assistant manager of the complex.

In one of the cases, a man rented a one-bedroom apartment for himself but at least four other people were found to be living there, Thompson said.

Tenant organizer Gotts said this is not surprising. "When you cannot afford to pay the rent, you bring a friend in. But then it's overcrowded. Then you're in violation of the lease. We explain to people not to do that. But they have no choice. They haven't enough money to pay the rent."

The recent survey commissioned by the Arlington Housing Corp. found that while 80 percent of the adults at Lee Gardens worked, the average annual income for 57 percent of the families was less than $15,600. The study, which surveyed 998 people living in 279 units, found that most of the workers had jobs in the restaurant or construction fields. Five families received Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

"They are a real important sector of the community that contributes to the work force but cannot afford to live in the community," said Lou Ann Frederick, executive director of the housing corporation.

Though some tenant groups have estimated that as many as 5,000 people lived in Lee Gardens, the survey results showed that the population was around 3,000, said John D. Spencer, director of multifamily programs for the housing group.

The agency is in the middle of negotiations with Artery over a proposal to buy the north section of Lee Gardens and preserve 200 of its 364 units for low- and moderate-income tenants.

County officials support the proposal and have asked the Virginia Housing Development Authority for $33.38 million in loans and bond guarantees for the purchase.

The initial request was turned down in April as too costly, but Steve Calos, a spokesman for the state housing authority, said last week that he expects that a revised proposal will be submitted shortly. Eisenberg said he hopes to have the issue settled within two weeks.

While the displacement at Lee Gardens has proven unsettling to many tenants, for one of them, at least, things have turned out better than expected. After years on a waiting list, Aliene F. Brown was told in March that there was a place for her in a building with subsidized rents for the elderly.

"I got out just in time," she said.