It is a steamy summer afternoon in Seat Pleasant. A young girl walks slowly across the sun-baked clay and concrete grounds of the Central Gardens, apartments, past the exposed drainage pipes, and pauses next to two rusted poles. This was once the project's swing set.

"I hate it here," the girl declares vehemently. "It always stinks inside, and the noise is really bad."

A boy rolls up on a skateboard.

"You should have been here last week," he says. "Our whole apartment was flooded out. And have you seen the rats? We have rats as big as cats here. They come out of the bushes at night."

These are the children of Central Gardens - the intended beneficiaries of the Kennedy-Johnson dream of providing decent housing for every American.

In pursuit of this goal, the federal government since the 1960s has poured billions of dollars into building subsidized housing for low and moderate income families.

Many of these projects, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development insists, are success stories.

But in Prince George's County, six projects - which have cost the taxpayer $35 million - can only be described as suburban slums.

The hundreds of children who live in these projects - the Central Gardens, Pumpkin Hill, Washington Heights, Baber Village, Nalley and Glenarden apartments - complain openly about the conditions to a reporter.

Many of their parents, however, no longer see any point in complaining.

"There's no sense in publicizing this place," says one woman. "It's just going to draw attention to us, make us look bad. We can't help it, if we live here. People live here because they can't go nowhere else, you understand?"

The reason families can't go anywhere else is rent.

A typical subsidized four-bedroom apartment in Prince George's county today goes for about $270 a month - considerably below the average rent for a non-subsidized apartment.

Many of the lower-income families who moved into these apartments were offered additional rent subsidies to reduce their monthly payments even further.

And some were effectively driven into these projects by Prince George's County housing inspectors, who first condemned their homes, then drove the families directly to the project offices.

However they got into these projects, most of the tenants living there today have little hope that their living conditions will improve.

They see themselves as prisoners of the system, and feel their only hope lies in escape.

A woman who stood up at a tenant's meeting at the Pumpkin Hill project in South Laurel appeared to reflect the prevailing attitude.

"If we stay and fight," she shouted, "what are we going to stay and fight for - our mice and roaches? Those apartments aren't worth staying and fighting for. If we knock them down, at least there will be no roaches."

D. Craig Horn was one of those caught up by the Kennedy-Johnson dream.

An Air Force sergeant stationed at Fort Meade, he moved into the brand new Pumpkin Hill apartments in January 1969.

The rent for a two-bedroom apartment was $165. "It looked like a great deal," Horn remembers. "The rent was way, way low for the area, and the apartment was beautiful."

At first, Horn recalls, Pumpkin Hill seemed to work. Many of Horn's neighbors worked at Fort Meade, the National Security Agency, or NASA. Most were young, and community spirit was high.

"All of us would go out and play basketball in the evening," he says. "The grounds were beautifully landscaped, and everything worked."

Then, in the late summer, the atmosphere began to change. "We had a dry spell, and all of that beautiful grass died," Horn recalls. "No one ever replaced it. Then the air conditioning started to break down all the time. All the laundry machines in the basement broke. The trash was not picked up regularly."

During the next year, Horn says, tenants began moving in and out at an accelerating rate. Apartments became vacant. A Pumpkin Hill address became a joke, even a stigma, at Fort Meade.

"The idea was that if you had to live there," Horn says, "you saved as much money as you could, and lived there for as long as you could possibly stand it. Then you got out, fast. You ran for your life. Everybody could see the handwriting on the wall.

"I was trying to keep myself and my family away from that place as much as I could, and still live there," Horn says. "The place was really going to the dogs fast.

"Nothing was ever done, nothing was ever fixed by (the management), and it just kept getting worse and worse," Horn says. "They started to keep trash dumpsters instead of having trash pickups - which they said cost too much - and the trash started to pile up in the parking lots.

"Junk cars abounded. And when the kids started to break the windows, nothing was done about it. They would just board a place up and let it stand."

Finally, after two years at Pumpkin Hill, Horn and his family moved to a townhouse in Laurel. That was early in 1971, 8 years before the project was finally condemned, and its owners turned most of it back to the federal government, having made millions of dollars.

The tenants of the projects known their adversaries - the management companies hired to run the apartments, and the housing inspectors and politicians of Prince George's County.

Unlike the largely invisible bureaucrats of the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the largely absentee owners, the managers see the broken heating pipes, the leaking ceilings and the crumbling walls.

Yet, little gets done, tenants say, and even that takes a long time.

"Whenever you try to get anything repaired," reads one letter to HUD from a Pumpkin Hill tenant, "it's like asking the impossible.

"Once I called concerning the heat, leaving the door ajar (so repairment could get in), and go no response. Since I dread doing that, I locked it again. When they did come, they broke the lock and never repaired it.

"I've never lived in a place where I've been so ashamed before."

There are tenants in the projects whose lives arefilled with wearying struggles with the site managers. If the rent is not about to go up, they say, then the basement has just flooded, or the heat has been cut off, or the windows are broken.

Two summers ago at the Imperial Gardens project in Landover, it was the air conditioning, which shut down for almost two weeks while temperatures in apartments reached 100 degrees.

At the Glenarden Apartments last January, it was the heat, which was cut off by management for up to 30 hours at a time.

These problems were the responsibility of the project managers. But the responsibility for policing the apartment managers - and their apartments - falls to county housing officials, and the political leaders who hire them.

In Prince George's, housing inspectors concede that there were long periods during the 1970s when the subsidized projects were largely neglected, when no aggressive effort was made to ensure that apartments were well-maintained.

At the same time, those housing inspectors say they have gone out of their way, at times, to control the projects' tenants.

Some inspectors say, for example, that they deliberately forced some low-income families into the projects during the early 1970's.

"We wanted to stop the trend of these projects filling up with poor people from the District and other areas," says housing inspector William Sommers. "So, we used to go to the poor neighborhoods and find people and physically take them to the project.

"We could make them go by condemning the places they were living in and giving them a certificate of eligibility for housing because of government action," Sommers said in an interview. "We did this for about 1 1/2 years, and we put a lot of people into Washington Heights, and some others."

Ironically, the political leaders of Prince George's are now battling to move tenants out of projects their employes once filled with tenants. Both County Executive Lawrence J. Hogan and his predecessor, Winfield M. Kelly Jr., have tried to have part or all of some projects demolished, and have resisted efforts by owners to accept more low-income families.

Recently, too, Hogan ordered his inspectors to descend on Pumpkin Hill, Central Gardens, Nalley Apartments, and other projects around the county - after years of relative neglect - to condemn buildings and threaten to evict tenants.

The eviction threats so far have not been carried out, but many tenants, afraid that they would soon have no place to live, have been driven to desperate searches for housing. Hundreds have moved out since the crackdown by inspectors, tenants at the projects say.

"They left because they were confused and really panicked," says Maria Hill, the president of the Pumpkin Hill tenants' association. "They saw the signs and they heard these rumors about evictions. They would call the county, and the county would tell them they might have to move out by the endof the month."

In the end, however, the county never carried out its threats to clear the Pumpkin Hill project. And officials from HUD who later inspected Pumpkin Hill were puzzled by some of the condemnations.

"There was one building," a HUD official says, "where the only problem was a small hole in the ceiling of the laundry room that had been made by some maintenance men who were doing repairs. The entire building had been condemned because of this one hole."

For the tenants who remain at Pumpkin Hill and the other dilapidated projects, a predominant emotion is fear.

"I know a guy over in another part of the project," says Greg Mendoza of Pumpkin Hill, "who keeps a loaded shotgun propped up against his front door. He won't open up to anyone unless that gun is pointing at them. Maybe he's crazy, but that's what he thinks it takes to be safe in his building."

Others fear the county will vacate the complex for code violations. They worry that the heat will be cut off in the winter, or the air-conditioning in the summer, or that rats will bite their children.

And above all, they fear that if they complain, they will be giving the management a reason to evict them.

"People are afraid of coming forward," says Joyce Butler, who leads the Glenarden tenants' association.

"They don't know their rights and they don't want to know their rights. They don't want to know anything because they are worried about being thrown out, or having their [rent subsidy] cut off."

"Tenants who complain about housing conditions are really in a bind," says Bari Schwartz, an attorney who has worked with families at Glenarden and Pumpkin Hill. "You want the county force the owners to make the place livable. At the same time, the county force the owners to make the place livable. At the same time, the county has said to us countlesstimes that if we complain too much, they'll tear the place down."

"Let's face it," Horn says."A lot of people are lucky if they have enough money to pay the rent on time. Their attitude is, "I don't want to fight, I'm already behind a month. I want a place to live."

"That the problem with these places," Horn says. "It's a terrible place to live, but if they kick you out, where are you going to go?" CAPTION: Picture 1, Playgound equipment at Central Gardens apartments includes a slide lacking steps and an empty swing frame. Exposed drain pipes are visible near path. By Gerald Martineau - The Washington Post; Picture 2, Pumpkin Hill Apartments residents play on makeshift swing suspended from a door from which the glass has been broken. Photos by Gerald Martineau - The Washington Post; Chart, Subsidized vs. Market Rate Apartment Rents in Prince George's County, By Alice Kresse - The Washington Post; Picture 3, Dorothy Mullin points to water seepage in her Pumpkin Hill apartment.