AT A POINT last weekend when the temperature here was at near-Arctic levels, the heat went off at Clifton Terrace. Even though this winter has produced a substantial number of hard-luck cases, the crisis at Clifton Terrace turns out to be more than just another sad winter tale. The cold weather problems of the 285-unit complex in Cardozo helped bring to light the far more fundamental problems assocaited with providing housing for lower middle income citizens in Washington. A year ago, this city hailed the private ownership of Clifton Terrace as a model for the nation. Today, although struggling with monumental problems, Clifton Terrace remains a hopeful experiment in urban housing.

The heat went off because the cash ran out. The cash ran out because an unacceptably large percentage of Clifton Terrace's residents - 55 out of 285 - were behind in their rent. "We have no other source of revenue besides rents," a management official of P. I. Properties, owner of the complex, explained. "When people don't pay their rent, we can't pay the oil man, and the oil man these days is dealing strictly in cash." So just like that, a cold reality came home to Clifton Terrace residents: There is a direct relationship between the management's ability to operate and the citizen's responsibility to pay his rent. Instead of being strictly a one-to-one relationship of manager and tenant, it suddenly became a matter of collective responsibility of neighbors to each other. Some ugly incidents occurred when a list of rent delinquents went up and the heat went off. But as a result of the cutoff, rents began flowing in, some from tenants who had paid no rent in months.

To the management at Clifton Terrace, the problem can be simply put. Those who cannot afford to meet their monthly obligations should be in public housing or in some other clearly subsidized arrangement. And those who live in housing provided on the open market must meet their obligsations or leave the open market must meet their obligations or leave the project. The problem with that view in the opinion of private real estate operators here is that the present state of the law in the District of Columbia permits tenants to be delinquent for anywhere from 45 days to four months without any serious fear of eviction.

As the competition for urban real estate continues to grow, so does the debate fover whether - and how - to preserve decent homes in the city for the moderate income family. Clifton Terrace's management, three years into the question, argues that the goal of housing for the moderate income family cannot be met unless those families place the payment of rent higher on their list of priorities than has been the case among some residents of Clifton Terrace. It is hard to draw any other conclusion from the unhappy chill that gripped, with fine impartiality, the apartments of rent-payers and rent-delinquents alike at Clifton Terrace last weekend.