THE SIGNS of deterioration are evident from the moment that the Clifton Terrace apartments come into view; broken windows, graffiti, unhinged doors, trash and other debris surround each of the three brick buildings that make up the 285-unit complex located at 14th and Clifton streets NW. Inside are gaping holes in the walls large enough for adults to walk through, exposed wiring, leaking pipes, broken elevators - and even more problems, according to the city officials who recently found more than 300 housing-code violations there.

Just the other day Clifton Terrace was bought by the Department of Housing and Urban Development after HUD foreclosed on the previous owner, PI Properties - the property-management arm of Pride, Inc., a community self-help organization. Though PI Properties was never able to make ends meet and only infrequently paid the mortgage, insurance and other bills, it wasn't the first to fail at managing the complex. In 1969, the property was so mismanaged that it had as many as 1,200 housing-code violations against it; thereafter, several commercial companies and a non-profit group tried - and failed. When PI Properties bought Clifton Terrace in 1975, national and local officials hailed the purchase as one of the important rehabiliation projects of that year; they predicted that within a short time the community-based firm would fix things up and provide well-managed housing for lower-income residents.

Well, that didn't happen, and it probably won't happen now - unless improvements are made to the property almost immediately. The need of such things as doors and windows, walls and pipes, a furnace and roof is so acute it cannot be deferred. What's more, whatever renovation is done must be carefully checked: in the past, shoddy repairs went uncorrected and created greater maintenance problems. Without a doubt, federal money will be needed to subsidize the property so that lower-income households will not be forced to move because of skyrocketing rents - or do without heat because bills cannot be paid. Counseling programs could help tenants maintain or make minor repairs to their own apartments; after-school activities could provide youngsters with alternatives to vandalism. Those ideas aren't new - they just haven't been tried at Clifton Terrace.