When the legendary Harry Wardman built five co-operative apartment buildings at First and M streets and New York Avenue NW in the late 1930s, the buyers were well-to-do for those Depression days. The one- and two-bedroom apartments were priced from $3,800 to $9,000.

Now the complex of four brick buildings (one was razed years ago to provide an inner courtyard) are undergoing a full-scale rehabilitation. They will be sold as condominiums to moderate-income families, at prices ranging from $23,500 to $37,500. The first of the 82 units should be occupied by late April.

Now called the Julius Hobson Plaza, in honor of the late D.C. City Council member and political activist, the apartment complex was acquired by the city's Redevelopment Land Agency about 10 years ago as part of the Northwest 1 urban renewal plan.

The apartments had been sold by the cooperative to an owner who converted them to rental dwellings. RLA's plan was to have a developer fix up the then-deteriorated apartments and rent them.

But RLA was unable to find a developer who could obtain financing and make the project viable, and the apartments stood vacant for a decade. One former RLA official said that federal and city funds were not available and that the project couldn't fly on its own, despite some well-intentioned plans.

About two years ago a nonprofit organization got involved. It was the D.C. Housing Industry Corp., which is composed of trade associations of local builders, savings and loan associations, mortgage bankers, banks and real estate professionals. The corporation was organized in 1975 to build and rehabilitate housing for low-income buyers.

Talks with city leaders and the District's department of housing and community development resulted in a plan that was implemented early last year.

"If nothing else, this project demonstrates that the city and all aspects of the private real estate industry can get something done efficiently and quickly," despite the years the buildings stood empty, said G. V. (Mike) Brenneman, the volunteer project manager for the housing corporation.

Families purchasing the units must have annual incomes of less than $25,000.

"First priority will be given to those displaced from the apartments years ago and from other displaces on the city's housing priority list," said Alvin Nichols, executive vice president of the housing corporation.

Any of the 82 apartments not bought by displaced families will be available to others who qualify by income level. A waiting list has been compiled.

So far, Nichols said, the city has contributed the land and buildings and has committed money for down payments, under the home purchase assistance program, for buyers unable to finance the purchases themselves. Those buyers will be obligated to repay that advance if they sell their units later at a profit.

A consortium of five local banks -- National Bank of Washington, Riggs National, American Security, Union First and National Savings & Trust -- made the construction loan of $2.5 million, at market rates. Home Federal Savings and Loan Association will make the permanent loans for the condominium buyers.

Knott Restoration Services Inc. is supervising the interior reconstruction of the apartments. Among the improvements being made to the units are increased insulation in the 19-inch walls, insulated windows, individually controlled heat pumps for heating and air conditioning, dishwashers and garbage disposers. A master TV antenna system is also being installed.

It is estimated that the average purchaser will have to be able to carry a $400 monthly payment to satisfy the mortgage payment, the D.C. property taxes, insurance and condominium fee.

Only one full-time maintenance person is expected to be required on the premises.

In addition, an ownership manual is being prepared for the buyers. They will also be invited to seminars about homeownership and the maintenance responsibilities they will be taking on.

Brenneman, a veteran of the local condominium conversion market, said the Hobson Plaza rehabilitation "will be as good as any I've seen anywhere. What's more, the work is within the budget and ahead of schedule. That saves on construction financing."

Knott said that an effort was made to make jobs at the complex available to persons living in the area, which includes subsidized housing and the Bates Street town house rehabilitation project. Knott estimated that subcontractors under his supervision were employing up to 100 workers at peak times and that about 85 percent were from the neighborhood.