Three years ago, the Montgomery County Council passed a law designed to increase the stock of housing for middle-class home buyers, who were finding it increasingly difficult to afford homes in a county that has one of the highest per capita incomes in the nation.

The law required builders to set aside 15 of the units in developments of more than 50 houses or apartments for families with annual incomes ranging $11,000 to $24,000 - families considered too rich to qualify for low-income housing but too poor to afford Montgomery's prices. Builders were to offer these units initially to applicants certified by the county. It was hoped that some 1,600 homes and apartments would become available each year as a result, but to date, only 65 have been sold to families who signed up for the program and 23 have been rented.

Councilwoman Elizabeth Scull, a sponsor of the legislation, says the Moderate Price Dwelling Unit law may need a new public image. She concedes that it was a bad time to carry to get such a program off the ground.

The recession and a moratorium on the granting of sewer hookup permits have severely limited the number of houses being built in the county. Contractors have also been reluctant to include "no-frills" housing among luxury units, said Eugene B. Sieminski, director of the county housing office. At the same time, there appeared to be a limited number of interested home buyers whose incomes and family sizes made them eligible for the moderate income program.

Last fall, Sieminski undertook a random mail survey of 18,000 households in the Washington areas, recieving 1,623 responses. The survey revealed that upwards of 85 per cent of the respondents earned too much money or had too small a family to quality for the type of housing they were interested in.

To be eligible for the program, single persons can earn no more than $10,900 ayear, couples, $14,500; a families of four, $18,100, and so on up to $23,900 for a family of eight.

The average income of the responded was $15,174, and then median rent being paid by them was $236 a month, compared with Montgomery County's median of $260. Rents of $250 to $310 was being charged in apartment units built under the moderate price program, and $295 and up was being charged monthly for townhouses. Few of the respondents said they were interested in paying those prices.

As for buying a house, respondents said they thought $31,750 a reasonable price. But when one major builder, Kettler Brothers, offered middle-income buyers townhouses in Montgomery Village last year for $30,-950 to $34, 95o, only 65 out of the 108 units were sold to certified participants. Fourteen were later purchased by the Housing Opportunities Commission to rent to low-income residents, and the rest of the houses were sold on the open market.

Sieminski feels the income maximum may need to be raied so that more people may qualify, but adds that those on the lower end of the scale would most certainly lost out to the more affluent.

Councilwoman Scull believes the plan's image should be changed, not the plan itself. Although the program is not subsidized, the stigma associated with public housing has tainted the middle income program, she feels. Scull has proposed that the Moderate Price Dwelling Unites be re named "Affordable Homes," the "eligibility" lists would be redubbed "early birds" lists.

In addition to more creative promotion, both Scull and Council President Norman Christeller, support state of county mortgage loan programs. Christeller suggested last November tht if the county's Housing Opportunities Commission were able to float a bond issue at the 5 per cent interest rate the county pays - compared with the 9 per cent commercial housing rate - it would reduce monthly rents by $75 and make it possible for 5,000 to 10,000 more people to be able to afford housing in the country.

The bond proposal was opposed by the County Executive James P. Gleason and Finance Director Albert Gault, who feared that possible mismanagement of the project could result in the county's bond rating being lowered and its interest rates increased.

While the financing discussion continues, the housing commission is revising sale prices upward for additional houses to be offered uner the moderate price program.In about a month, 43 detached houses near Gaithersburg, 12 townhouses near Montgomery Mall and 104 townhouse in Montgomery Village will go on sale. Interested persons should call 279-1254.