FACED WITH a surge of condominium conversions and tenants' protests, the Montgomery County Council has responded awkwardly. It has barred conversions for 120 days while a task force tries to draft controls. Such a pause, which County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist had endorsed, would make sense if it seemed likely to produce a long-term plan. But the council also voted to give tenants and the county first crack at buying apartment buildings put up for sale -- until February 1. That suggests that the council does not expect to settle much in three months, and may well keep resorting to lurching, on-again, off-again steps as it has in the field of rents.

A permanent program to ease the traumas of conversions should not be hard to devise. While the county's voluntary guidelines have become inadequate, many of their elements are sound, including full disclosure by developers, preferential purchase terms for tenants and relocation help for those displaced. The District has a useful, adaptable law that restricts conversions of lower-rent properties and provides special aid to the low- and moderate-income tenants hit hardest by the housing squeeze. Several kinds of tenant cooperatives have also been shown to work well.

Two points should be kept in mind. One is that landlords and developers can be expected to do only so much. Some are very compassionate. For instance, Giuseppe Cecchi of International Developers, Inc., who converted the Parkfairfax garden apartments in Alexandria, went to impressive lengths to minimize disruption of long-term tenants and help those in financial straits. As a result, 72 percent of the Parkfairfax tenants either bought their units or stayed as renters. Such concern is very desirable but hard to demand by law -- unless a local government is prepared to step in, if needed, with substantial subsidies.

A larger point in Montgomery is that the county's own prosperity and slow-growth policies have been powerful fuel for the condo-conversion boom. Such a high-income area is bound to be a magnet for housing investors. The county's curbs on high-density construction have made conversions even more attractive -- and lower-cost and rental housing more scarce. Those are politically awkward questions Mr. Gilchrist and the council are going to have to start talking about.