Clean It or Lien It, the District's tough new program to force landlords to clean up the city's estimated 21,000 vacant lots, is being called a financial and community relations success by city officials.

However, not everyone is happy about the year-old program that promised residents a cleaner city through a venture that would eventually pay for itself. Some landlords who face the loss of their property at auction tomorrow for liens ranging from $34 to more than $9,000 said the city's charges were too high or improper.

Program architect Joe O'Donnell, chief of the Public Works Department's street and alley cleaning division, said the purpose of the program was to get owners to take care of their property.

"We know we have been successful because out of every 10 lots we now get on a list, three or four of them will be taken care of by the owner," he said. "Last year, we would have to do all 10."

O'Donnell said the program was designed so that it would pay for itself in two to three years.

Property owners are charged for work done by city employes on an overtime basis as well as for the equipment used, he said.

"The city is allowed to double our cleaning costs, and that is a form of a fine," he said. "If you simply ticket somebody for something, they pay the ticket and never do the work. But if you do the work, the lot gets cleaned. And if you charge them a good deal of money for the work, that helps to pay for the program. We have found that most owners are not interested in paying us more than once."

O'Donnell said inspectors respond only to complaints from residents; inspectors are too busy to search for dirty lots on their own. He said that when a lot is cited, the owner is notified by certified mail and given several weeks to clean the property. It is reinspected, and if the condition is unchanged or the work is unsatisfactory, a city work crew is assigned to the job.

O'Donnell and other city officials maintain that they are interested in more than financing the new program with the proceeds of tomorrow's auction. They hope that neighbors of some of the vacant lots will bid on the properties and eventually make use of them as gardens or playgrounds to enhance their neighborhoods.

Leslie Hotaling, chief of staff of the public space maintenance administration, said, "Our whole intent is to get {the vacant lots} into the hands of someone who cares."

Advisory Neighborhood Commission Chairwoman Mary Gaffney said she intends to do just that in her Watts-Deanwood neighborhood.

"I love the Clean It or Lien It program," she said. "It has brought great changes to our neighborhood. I plan to go to that auction and buy everything I can. I want to upgrade this area."

As of Friday, about 140 people had signed up to bid on about 1,000 properties. Liens on 1,352 lots had been listed in a paid ad in The Washington Post in late June; in the cases of more than 300, either the lien had been paid or the property had been withdrawn from the list by city officials when questions were raised concerning ownership. Today is the last day that property owners can pay off the liens.

Unlike the annual tax auction, in which successful bidders have to wait two years to claim their property, the real estate sold tomorrow will go to the highest bidder at the end of six months, said Alfred L. Richards, deputy chief for assessments of the Finance and Revenue Division.

However, he said it may take as long as 18 months for the city to get the deeds to the new owners.

Richards said the six-month waiting period gives the current owner a final chance to pay off the lien, but the owner also would have to pay the winning bidder interest on the auction price.

One lot that will remain on the list is owned by Elizabeth Johnston of Falls Church, who said she refuses to pay the more than $5,000 the city says she owes on a vacant lot at 603 49th Place NE in the Burrville neighborhood.

"They are charging me for work I already paid for. I will not send them any money. They can have it," she said.

Johnston objected to a bill the city sent her for $5,153.52 to clean the hilly lot she bought for investment purposes in 1981.

She said she received notices from the city in 1984 and 1986 to clean the lot and did the work requested by paying a man about $500 each time to the clean the lot. She showed a reporter receipts for the work done.

Last week, the lot was dense with bushes and small trees.

The city contends that when it inspected the property on June 9, 1986, five weeks after notifying her to clean the lot, it found no evidence that the lot had been cleaned.

However, it did not do the work until Sept. 23 and 25, when it charged her for 10 hours of work.

Johnston requested a resolution of "this unpleasant situation" in a letter to the city in which she identified herself as a widowed senior citizen living on a fixed income. Also, she volunteered to give the property to a D.C. charitable organization because she had been unable to sell it.

In a letter signed by John Touchstone, director of the Public Works Department, the city offered to drop the doubling penalty and reduce the cost to $2,358.04 because she was a "widowed senior citizen."

Johnston said she wants the city to drop all the charges because she still is not convinced that the work by the city had ever been done.

A Shaw property owner, Francisco Thoumi, was concerned about charges placed against his vacant lot at 1235 Fifth St. NW.

He agrees that the city cleaned his lot last year but he says that $2,196.47 is too much to charge for cleaning a 1,600-square-foot lot.

Thoumi said he now cleans the lot on a monthly basis.

"I go there on Sunday morning when all the drug users and drunks are not there," he said. "That is the safest time to go. It takes me about three hours to clean up the mess they leave behind."

Thoumi, an economist for the Inter-American Development Bank, said he sees the District's system of dealing with property owners as inefficient at best.

He said he considered hiring a lawyer but decided that the cost was too high. He said he took a letter to the financial office asking for a reconsideration of the charges on his lot.

"They told me they would take my property off the list while they investigate my situation, but I don't have that in writing," he said.

On Friday, Thoumi's property was still listed for sale, assessments official Richards said.

"We need more of a reason than someone saying we charged too much {in order} to remove a property from the sale list," he said.