The Kenilworth courts public housing project in Northeast Washington was once one of the bleakest in the city. Now, thanks to a three-year-old experiment in tenant self-management, things have changed for the better.

There is still graffiti on the walls, but the scribblings are old, scrubbed as clean as possible by the tenants and not city workers. Some of the apartments in the 464-unit complex appear unkempt, but others are in perfect shape. Chain-link fences throughout the complex have been flattened or bent beyond repair. But some tenants have planted grass and keep the grounds free of litter. Orderly youths play basketball or other sports, but share space with bold drug dealers and addicts.

In some respects, then, Kenilworth Courts is no different from any other public housing project in the city. But the positive aspect of this situation is the work of the tenants who, in an experiment that is one of the few of its kind in the nation, run the project with a strictness that irritates some residents who complain about fines for littering and not planting new grass, but which produces results.

Officials in the Housing and Urban Development Department and spokesmen for the National Center on Neighborhood Enterprise say the experiment is working well enough for them to have set aside $13.2 million to renovate the project. They point to a 179 percent increase in rent collections, achieved in part through a smattering of evictions and the fact that some tenants who would not or could not pay rent have moved out. Administrative costs and expenditures for routine maintenance have dropped because the tenants have been taking care of some problems themselves.

Tenant management is not a sure-fire cure for the problems that beset public housing. A strong tenant leader and support from the local housing authority are key ingredients. That type of leadership was lacking in one Jersey City project, and the effort there failed. But it is provided at Kenilworth Courts by Gladys Roy, a tenant of the project for 23 years, who now earns $17,000 as its manager. As she walks through the project, she speaks to nearly everyone by name. A glance from her is all that is needed to stop teen-agers from congregating in the hallways.

One of the main arguments federal officials have used against new public housing construction is that the projects are unmanageable and fall into disrepair. In fact, housing experts have always pointed to successful projects where strong management made the difference. What is happening at Kenilworth Courts demonstrates that tenants themselves can play the key role in providing that management and that new construction need not produce the same bad conditions that have been typical of most projects.