Landlord discrimination against families with children, long a major issue in California and several other states, is surfacing as a housing and civil rights issue in the Washington area.

An owner's refusal to rent to people who have children is not illegal here and federal law does not prohibit such discrimination. Only a small number of states have statutes to protect the housing rights of people with children. At present, the District is the only jurisdiction here considering legislation prohibiting such discrimination.

White much of the adults-only housing appears to be in the District -- where only a fifth of the rental units are said to house one or more children under the age of 18 -- the problem is not limited to the city, said Roger Wentz, a housing planner with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

Human rights officials in Montgomery, Arlington and Alexandria say they regularly receive complaints from parents unable to find apartments. The problem also surfaces occasionally in Prince George's County, where 9 percent of the rental housing units are for adults only, and in Fairfax.

In the District, however, children are apparently second to condominium conversion as a concern for housing advocates. Nia Kuumba, spokeswoman for a District tenants' group called Concerned Mothers Against Discrimination of Children in Housing, told the D.C. City Council recently that children affected by this problem are beginning to recognize that "society sees them as an expendable product."

The phenomenon of adults-only housing is the result of a growing proportion of single adult and childless households, which has created a demand for small units. Renting to families with children was once profitable, but today the demand for age-segregated buildings and communities is becoming a primary profit motive in the housing market.

The Metropolitan Washington Planning and Housing, a non-profit housing group, says anti-child policies are a growing problem and plans to encourage parents to file complaints.

The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights has recommended that Congress consider national legislation prohibiting housing discrimination against families with children. In a position paper, the conference said it questions whether current anti-discrimination statutes can deal with a rental and condominium market that leans toward the single renter and small families while the proportion of larger size units declines.

John T. O'Neill, executive vice-president of the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington, said in an interview that the apartment industry here has never catered to large families. Washington has traditionally been an area with a large population of young government workers, he said; the building industry has responded to a tremendous demand for small efficiency and one-bedroom apartments.

O'Neill called the City Council bill to prohibit adults-only buildings "an impractical piece of legislation." He contends that people who do not have children should have the option to live without children. Most apartments, especially high-rises, are unsuitable for children, O'Neill maintains.

Among the people who argue that there is such a need are Joe Jeff and his wife, Nancy Lynner, who have been ordered to vacate their Cleveland Park apartment in December -- when their first child is born. They told the City Council that their lease stipulates that only two persons can live in the unit.

Children, their rental agent is said to have told them, "would change the quality of life in the building."

A.C. Houghton, whose real estate company manages the couple's building, says his firm believes that "other tenants have the right to quiet and peace."

"Widespread housing discrimination against children has created an impossible situation for many families," D.C. Councilman David A. Clarke said at a recent hearing on the bill that would prohibit such discrimination in the city. Clarke introduced the bill last year after the Corporation Counsel issued its opinion that adults-only buildings are permissible. The Clarke amendment would exempt senior citizen complexes.

In Montgomery County discrimination against children in housing is significant, said Michael Dennis, compliance director of the Human Relations Commission of that county, but "I don't know how significant the problem is."

The commission often gets phone calls from people who have difficulty finding an apartment because they have children, he said, but most of the housing complaints are from single persons who have been denied housing because of their marital status.

In Prince George's County the owner of an apartment building who wants to place an age restriction on tenants must submit an application to the county's Human Relations Commission. Age restriction on apartments is illegal only if the owner has not submitted the required application. According to a staff member the commission rejects "very few" applications.

About 9 percent of the apartments in Prince George's are registered as having age restrictions. And according to William Welch, executive director of the Human Relations Commission, while some people who have children are facing problems, "at this particular point the practice (of not renting to families with children) has not substantially affected the population."

Apart from Prince George's, Alexandria appears to be the only other jurisdiction here with statistics on adults-only buildings. The Landlord and Tenant Office in Alexandria has conducted a survey, covering a majority of the city's apartments, on the eligibility requirements for tenants. It showed that 51 of the 138 complexes surveyed do not permit children at all, while others allow children over a certain age.

Families with children do have problems finding apartments in Alexandria, said Thomas M. Delany, the landlord-tenant relations investigator for the city. But he said that a shortage of one- and two-bedroom apartments is largely responsible for the problems faced by families with children. Rosa Harper, another staff member of the landlord-tenant office, calls the denial of housing to families with children "a big problem."

Arlington County reports that about 9 percent of the complaints to its Fair Housing Board are from people who have been denied housing because they have children. But here, as in Montgomery County, race and marital status continue to be the leading subjects of complaints.

In Fairfax County, children are not an overwhelming tenant problem, according to Patricia Horton, Director of the Fairfax Human Relations Commission. Unlike the District, which has a large porportion of single people, Fairfax is more family-oriented and there are fewer age-segregated apartments, Horton said.

Several witnesses at the recent District of Columbia hearing, while strongly supporting the bill, said that the root cause of the problem is the city's housing shortage.Discrimination against children is yet another aspect of the District's housing crisis, the witnesses said.

"In the District's extremely tight housing market, discrimination of this type can make it impossible for a person to find housing for his or her family," Laura Macklin, of the Neighborhood Legal Services Program, told the Council.

Anita Bellamy Shelton, director of the D.C. Office of Human Rights, said that the greatest percentage of female-headed households and minority poor live in rented space. These families are therefore the most frequent victims of discrimination against children, she said.

As Clarke's bill, which would ammend the D.C. Human Rights Act, wanders through the various legislative stages, the D.C. Office of Human Rights is asking the Corporation Counsel's office to reverse its earlier decision -- made during the administration of former Mayor Wlater E. Washington -- and make adults-only buildings illegal.

But if the situation is unchanged by December, Joe Neff, aided by the Metropolitan Washington Planning and Housing Association and the law firm of Covington and Burling, says he plans to take the matter to court. The court would then have to decide whether the D.C. Human Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of age, covers discrimination against children in housing.