Four years ago, Brenda Joyce gathered her savings and made a $30,000 down payment on a 19-unit apartment building on Columbia Road NW.

"Oh, I had such grandiose ideas of how I was going to do all these things. I knew about slumlords and absentee landlords, and I was going to be different," Joyce recalled the other day. "I put . . . $15,000 to $18,000 in to repairing and upgrading it. I sanded floors. I painted and put in new kitchens."

But before she could complete the renovations and repairs, Joyce ran out of money to pay operating costs. When she tried to cut her losses by closing the building and selling it, she found herself thwarted by a legal battle with a tenant who didn't pay rent, who accused her of numerous housing code violations and who refused to move out.

Like dozens of other Washington investors who bought small apartment buildings a few years ago expecting to make large profits from the wave of rising real estate values, Brenda Joyce now finds herself sinking under a flood of debts from increasing operating costs and uncollected rents.

"It was the biggest, silliest, foolishest mistake I ever made in my life," Joyce says ruefully. "If only I had my money in money market funds."

And hers is only one side of the story.

Tenant activists in the Columbia Heights area say that as a result of numerous small, inexperienced investor-owners like Joyce going belly up in the seas of hard financial times, thousands of persons are living in apartments without heat, hot water and other necessities and are plagued by vermin, collapsing ceilings, mildew and flooded floors.

Like other housing activists, Roger Turpin of Washington Innercity Self Help (WISH) is skeptical of many landlords' claims that financial hardship prevents them from keeping up the buildings. Turpin said he believes "most landlords want to make a lot of money off their property and when they find out they can't, they want out."

"The respectable guys, doctors, architects, they bought for profit," Turpin said. "Others don't realize the financial problems they will run into. They buy and start forcing people to move out, and they never refill those vacancies, then they discontinue services."

Both landlords and their critics, the tenants' advocates, agree that many owners were ill-prepared to operate rental properties when they bought them.

"They are victims, but they were given bad advice," says tenant lawyer Rick Eisen, "and they never should have gotten into the business in the first place."

The apartment building that Brenda Joyce bought at 1108 Columbia Rd. is now only a skeleton of the "decent place for people to live" that she once talked of: The lone remaining tenant is camped out in a $127.50-a-month, one-bedroom apartment with a collapsed bathroom ceiling, the basement is flooded, the water has been turned off and the only heating oil the building receives is provided by the city.

Joyce says she has put about $70,000 of her money, including $30,000 for the down payment, into an investment gone bad; and she can't sell the building, she says, until her lengthy war with the last tenant is over.

Many of the owners in financial distress are concentrated in the Columbia Heights area of Northwest, according to lawyer Eric Sayles, who recently had a venture fail in that section and who represents other owners.

Turpin estimates that 40 percent of the apartment buildings in and around Columbia Heights have "substantial housing code violations" because their landlords claim financial distress. Turpin said that although the problem is not exclusive to that part of the city, it is more intense there because of a high percentage of apartment dwellings and of poor residents.

"It's just a common complaint. I would say tens of thousands of tenants affected is a safe thing to say," said Jim Tamialis, head of the Southern Columbia Heights Tenants Union.

Like Sayles, the owners in trouble are often lawyers, architects, government employes and other professionals who invested in rental properties expecting generous profits and with little real knowledge of the difficulties involved.

"What most of the small landlords have in common is that they are not big-money people. They were investing most or all of their assets in their properties," said John Lunsford, a lawyer who represents poor and low-income tenants in the Columbia Heights area, including those in the building owned by Joyce.

"A lot of these landlords are just going belly up and reacting very defensively, trying to get relief however possible," Lunsford said.

Sayles said he and three other lawyers who jointly owned a 40-unit building in the 2000 block of 13th Street NW lost $80,000 when they sold the property as a co-op to a well-organized tenants union.

Tenants had withheld approximately $17,000 in rent money to demand improvements in the 75-year-old building, and they eventually used part of that money as a down payment on the building, Sayles said.

He said the owners were rendered helpless by having those funds "sitting in escrow in Landlord-Tenant Court where it was earning no interest and nobody could get their hands on it." He said the owners considered the sale the easiest way out for all concerned.

At 1451 Park Rd. NW, where tenants are refusing to pay rent, water oozes from the walls of tenant leader Bruce Brown's apartment while there is none in the pipes to flush the toilet.

The building has been without heat and hot water for most of this winter. Brown's neighbor Annie Graves invites a visitor to feel the dampness of her bedcovers. An interior stairwell is blackened with soot from a fire that occurred months ago. A sheet of plywood hangs out of the glassless front door frame.

Brown said a few tenants are paying rent into an escrow account and a handful of others pay theirs to the registry of Landlord-Tenant Court, but added that some tenants in the nearly half-empty buildings pay no rent anywhere, contrary to advice given by tenants' organizations.

"It's something that has gotten out of hand for people like me who don't have access to a lot of capital," said owner Harry Layne.

Layne, a real estate veteran of several decades, said he has "damn near killed myself," working in the 131 units he owns in that building and the adjacent one at 1445 Park Rd. NW.

Still, he faced imminent foreclosure when his mortgagor insisted last year that he hire a management company to run the buildings.

The two buildings already were earning too little in rentals to cover upkeep and maintenance. Under the hired managers, conditions have worsened and income has dropped, according to Layne.

Jon Pangman bought a 28-unit rental property at 1447 Chapin St. NW in 1979 because "Washington seemed to have a hot real estate prospective." He had just earned his way through graduate school in psychology by managing a small apartment building in Northwest.

Pangman said he and his co-owner, government employe Julie Klaas, have been able to hold on to the building only by living in one of the apartments and doing their own repairs. Expenses that have risen 25 percent to $6,000 a month, and a few chronically delinquent renters who owe several thousand dollars in back rent, have made the investment a hardship.

"I kind of bought it with a little naivete," Pangman said. "I'm putting money in it hoping it will be an investment for the future."

"I didn't know there was this jungle out there," said Capt. Eddie Holloway, who, a couple of years ago, was looking for a profitable investment for his savings from a research job at Walter Reed Army Hospital. He "got a little book that said buy a piece of property and fix it up and you can make money," and following that advice, he was successful with one building he bought in Southeast.

His second investment, a 40-year-old, four-unit structure on LeBaum Street SE, has been a constant headache because one tenant has avoided paying his $145 monthly rent for nine months, Holloway said.

He said the tenant has blocked repairmen from the apartment while charging Holloway with housing code violations, accused the workmen of stealing his rent money and otherwise managed to live rent-free since Holloway took over.

Holloway says he has concluded that "the economical thing for me to do is vacate the building and just pay the note, write it off." But he added that he is reluctant to do so because "a certain amount of pride is involved . . . the tenants are not numbers, but individuals. But if there is a tenant whose intent is not to pay you, they can create havoc."

Brenda Joyce, who says she recently won an eviction order to force the last tenant to move out of her building, sums up her long haul: "I felt if I could provide a decent place for people to live in, it would be worth it.

"But no one is benefiting."