Two years ago, the District stopped sending housing inspectors to every apartment building every year. They would make only spot checks in wards with severe problems, officials said, or respond to tenant complaints.

Some critics say violations are going uncaught.

But the District did something else about two years ago. When a tenant did complain and an inspector found a violation, the city for the first time issued a costly citation if the landlord failed to correct the problem.

That has worked, the city says. And most critics agree.

What has happened to the housing inspection branch of the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs is largely what has happened to many other city agencies. Budget cuts have prevented it from doing what it used to do, and it has had to find new ways to ensure the safety of the 125,000 households in the city in privately owned rental housing, the branch's primary concern.

Two years ago, the branch had 66 inspectors, who checked each apartment building, each motel, looking for crumbling plaster, leaking ceilings and other problems, trying to catch them before they worsened.

Now, it has 51 inspectors, so few that the city had to abandon the policy of preventive inspections for a policy of responding to complaints. That, say critics, means problems often go unnoticed until they are severe and sometimes are not corrected at all because tenants are fearful that their rents will be raised if they file a complaint.

"You have hazardous housing sitting out there because they don't have adequate staff," said Bernard Jones, the former chief of the branch, who estimated the city would have to double the number of inspectors to be able to return to a policy of annual inspections.

Bernito Diaz, a tenant organizer for Washington Innercity Self Help, or WISH, said the annual inspections are needed because many of the city's poorest tenants, especially those who don't speak English, do not know their rights and are afraid to call city government for help.

John Payne, a union representative for the inspectors, said the city's housing stock is "going downhill" and he sees more violations when he goes out on inspections.

"We don't stay on top of things anymore. We don't have enough personnel," said Payne. He also said that morale is low among his members, who are paid less than the city's electrical, fire and other inspectors. Civil Infractions Program

But most tenant lawyers and community leaders interviewed agreed that, although the housing branch does not have a large enough staff, it is more effectively deploying the staff it does have to deal with the complaints it receives.

A key reason, they said, is the Civil Infractions Program, begun in December 1988. Instead of taking errant landlords to court, which took time and allowed problems to fester, inspectors now fine landlords from $20 to $500 if they refuse to make repairs. For the first time, officials say, inspectors have real leverage.

The result: There has been a sharp reduction in the number of tenant complaints, in large part because landlords are correcting problems swiftly and tenants no longer have to call repeatedly for help. The number of complaints has dropped from 22,564 in fiscal 1988 to 14,593 in fiscal 1989, and is projected to fall to 11,000 this fiscal year, officials said. The branch has collected more than $500,000 in fines, they added.

And whereas 50 percent of the landlords involved in complaints were recidivists -- the subjects of repeated tenant complaints -- that number has dropped to 10 percent, said Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Director Donald G. Murray.

"The system has worked well," he said. "There have not been a lot of complaints about long waits to get decisions."

Alan Anderson, managing attorney for the Legal Aid Society, which represents tenants in court, said "landlords as well as inspectors have become more responsive."

"We don't have nearly as many cases to take to court to get court-ordered emergency repairs," Anderson said.

Beyond implementing the Civil Infractions Program, department officials said, they have compensated for cutbacks in budget and staff by exercising tighter control over the inspectors, who used to have a large measure of independence in determining how they used their time. The department, said one administrator, is "getting more bang for the buck."

Overall, the housing inspection branch has become more responsive and professional, said Dorothy A. Brizill, chairwoman of the housing committee of the Columbia Heights Neighborhood Coalition and once one of the fiercest critics of the branch.

For example, said Brizill, her group had tried for years to get the city to close two dilipidated apartment buildings in the 1400 block of Girard Street NW. They had been cited for 1,500 code violations, but their landlords had never made repairs and the buildings had become havens for drug dealers, Brizill said.

After the department began reorganizing its procedures, the city assumed ownership of one of the buildings and forced the owner of the other to relocate the tenants and sell, Brizill said. She said inspectors also condemned a nearby illegal rooming house that had been the subject of police raids. Praise for the Victories

To neighborhood residents, the small victories represent major change.

"It's a tremendous relief," said Rosella Kenaston, who lives near one of the Girard Avenue buildings. "It looks all right until you go inside: filth, urine, very run-down, mailboxes all broken . . . . The whole place is that way."

Peter Chick, who also lives nearby, said of one of the buildings on Girard, "It appears it never got any maintenance, ever. It's in very bad shape now. It's never been painted in the 12 years that we've been here."

If it's finally closed, said Chick, "it's an improvement."

However, even when the city does inspect a building, it still often struggles to get landlords to make repairs, said Diaz of Washington Innercity Self-Help.

Last week, Diaz gave a reporter a tour of apartment buildings in the Shaw neighborhood that have been inspected in the past year. In one, tenants said their building hasn't had heat in three years, so they use portable heaters all winter. Diaz said that he is trying to get the city to pay for a new boiler and then place a lien on the property, but that he has been stonewalled.

In another building, residents complained that the structure is infested with rats and that every week the electricity goes out for hours and sometimes days. The landlord said inspectors gave him notices for more than 300 violations last October but never returned to reinspect to see if he made the necessary repairs.

Staff writer Steve Twomey contributed to this report.

SUNDAY -- An overview: an evaluation of District government services. The motor vehicle bureau: the agency that most ignites public passions.

MONDAY -- Street repair: the challenge of maintaining the area's oldest and most beat-up roadways.

TODAY -- The building permit office: an agency so understaffed that two-hour waits are commonplace.

WEDNESDAY -- Services for young and old: many good programs, but others with glaring deficiencies.

THURSDAY -- Public health clinics: basic health care hobbled by a steady erosion of resources.

FRIDAY -- Public libraries: years of austerity only beginning to be offset by additional funding.