YOU MAY BE surprised to know that a number of District tenants huddle around kerosene stoves these days, trying to keep warm in apartments that have no gas or electricity. Hundreds of others may well go without heat, lights and hot water this winter. All of these unfortunate people pay monthly rents calculated to include the cost of utilities -- but their landlords haven't paid the utility bills. The way such things work in the District, if a landlord has an overdue account, the utility company can simply discontinue service until it is brought up to date -- tenants aren't even notified in advance.

Steadily increasing energy costs have forced some landlords to cut corners, deferring payments for months at a time. Several slumlords, on the other hand, have no apparent excuse; they just haven't paid their bills. In past years, the District government paid a number of these bills, simply to restore service that had been cut off. It was a well-intentioned but imprudent gesture, as demonstrated by the fact that city officials can no longer pay such accounts; there is no money in the budget to cover the expense.

Is the answer to prohibit utility companies from shutting off service to tenants when landlords are at fault? That's what the Public Service Commission wanted to know at a recent public hearing. Not surprisingly, both the Washington Gas Light Company and Pepco opposed a ban on shutoffs; they argued that it would only encourage landlords to avoid making their monthly payments. For their part, consumer groups and city officials testified in favor of the prohibition, contending that tenants ought not to be penalized for the actions of unscrupulous or financially strapped landlords.

Other cities have figured a way to handle this problem rather well. In Boston, for example, when a landlord hasn't paid a gas or electric bill, tenants are given a 30-day notice before service is discontinued. To avoid the shutoff, tenants can pay a share of the current bill -- deducting it from their monthly rents. Legal procedures against delinquent landlords are swift and harsh, including sizable financial penalties or jail sentences. Special arrangements are made with landlords who are genuinely unable to pay their bills, just as individual consideration is given to tenants who are under extreme hardship.

Surely some such policy could be applied in the District. As it stands now, landlords who are in arrears know that the penalties for their actions (or inactions) will be minimal; the city's own corporation counsel's office isn't very aggressive in pursuing such matters. What's more, landlords know that they can probably weasel out of paying their accounts, since the fines imposed don't include the amount of the overdue bill.

Turning this situtation around wouldn't be all that difficult if the the Public Service Commission would act immediately. It could follow Boston's lead and tell utility companies that service may not be discontinued when landlords are in arrears. At the same time, the commission could instruct utility companies to notify tenants to pay current bills. That will keep the heat and lights going while the corporation counsel's office brings delinquent landlords to court -- and requests a penalty that includes payment to the utility companies. Beyond that, city officials might consider withholding such things as building permits or government contracts from landlords who haven't kept up their payments.

The commission has had this matter under review for several weeks; there is no need for further delay. If something isn't done fast, there will be a number of utility shutoffs in the weeks ahead -- a chilling thought, indeed.