Public housing was a symbol of various social ills -- unemployment, lack of education and vandalism -- in 1976, when the Department of Housing and Urban Development proposed to give low-income tenants a chance to manage their projects. Officials said tenants might gain skills to improve their living conditions and succeed where conventional housing-authority management had apparently failed.

Now, in the fifth year of the HUD tenant-management demonstration, the first results are in, and prospects for public-housing tenant management on a broader scale are small.

If the time and HUD money are there for training residents, tenant management has a chance, according to a HUD-commissioned evaluation of the demonstration's first three years. But those are big "ifs," especially considering the push to cut federal spending. It is unlikely that interested tenants can expect support from the Reagan administration for an approach that the HUD study showed cost more than conventional management.

When the demonstration began, the concept of tenant management wasnht new. After a prolonged rent strike, tenants in St. Louis won the housing authority's promise to help establish a tenant-management program. That agreement laid the groundwork for nonprofit tenant-management corporations to take over day-to-day operations of four projects from the housing authority, which signed contracts to pay the new managers.

Washington, which experimented with tenant management in the early 1970s, is another city that has tried to encourage greater resident participation, although not to the extent that the St. Louis housing authority has. Each of the District's 54 projects has its own resident's council, which acts as a liaison between tenants and the property management administration.

The St. Louis program provided the model for HUD to launch a larger scale test of tenant management, in cooperation with the Ford Foundation, at seven public housing projects in six cities.

Since tenant management in St. Louis appeared to have paid off, reducing vandalism and improving tenants' morale, HUD figured it might produce similar results at the seven demonstration sites. After considerable training, the tenant corporations at those developments all have signed contracts to officially take over management.

Tenant management at the seven projects did succeed in boosting residents' opinions of their housing, according to HUD-sponsored evaluation by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corp., a private research firm. Tenants were found to be more satisfied with their homes than residents of similar projects run by a housing authority.

With proper training, tenant-managers could do as well as conventional housing authority management in tasks such as keeping apartments filled and collecting rents -- the "nuts and bolts of real estate management," the research group said.

Routine management jobs were the chief responsibility of the tenant corporations, each headed by a board of directors elected by the residents.The board set policy and rules, then solicited tenants' involvement in management.

Residents got jobs working for the tenant corporations. "Many jobs were created, particularly in . . . core management, social services and aide categories," the evaluation noted. The increase in tenant employment surpassed HUD's expections.

The report continued: "We believe that resident capabilities for adequate tenant management exist in nearly all other public housing projects as well."

But there's a hitch, it said: tenants first need training, both in real estate management and the basic principles of organization needed to run a management corporation. HUD's demonstration provided more than $5 million for training and technical advice to the tenant managers.

"The additional costs incurred in tenant management are substantial," the research group observed, "both in terms of dollars and time commitments by residents and housing authority staff alike." Training took twice as long as expected, the report noted. "Many residents elected as board members had little or no previous experience functioning in such a setting."

Compared with conventional management, demonstration projects had 13 to 62 percent higher operating costs, mosty because of the additional jobs created, for which the housing authority had to pay salaries.

The report added, however, that this greater expense might be offset if one took into account the costs of providing public assistance to the tenants who would have needed it, had they not gotten management jobs.

But that calculation will have to be part of some later report, since the HUD experiment did not attempt to measure what are probably "significant" social benefits of tenant training and employment.

While "tenant managers were just as effective as their predecessors, even where the latter had been performing well," tenant management at the seven housing projects was not outstanding enough to justify the added costs in training and time, the evaluation said.

"At least in the short run, tenant management does not produce results markedly superior to those stemming from conventional housing authority management," the report said. The principal benefits of this new approach -- residents' morale, personal development and employment -- were not or could not be measured in the same way as vacancy losses, rent collections and how quickly tenants completed maintenance jobs.

The St. Louis program pointed to an additional, more easily measured advantage -- the stalling of project deterioration -- but this wasn't evident in the HUD demonstration, at least not yet, the evalution said.

A trade-off between the benefits of making tenants happier and the more tangible cost of training them was also apparent in the first years of Washington's tenant management efforts, according to an earlier HUD-commissioned history of such programs.

Housing authority administrators are likely to be skeptical of tenant attempts to gain more clout, the research corporation suggested. "When this demonstration began, very few [housing authorities] expressed much interest in trying tenant management."

Where there was support from the authority, it was hard to maintain, "because of relatively rapid turnover among executive directors."

The evaluation left some room, but not much, for the possibility of more housing authorities developing tenant management. They may be more receptive to the idea, it said, "once the results of the demonstration become known and they realize that tenant management does not unduly disrupt housing authority operations."

For the time being, however, "we believe tenant management has mixed probabilities of success in the nation's public housing projects," said the researchers, who added they "would not now expand tenant management further."

Housing authority cooperation was one of the crucial ingredients prescribed in the report for a smoothly running resident-management operation. The other prerequisites were continuing technical support, strong tenant leadership and, of course, the time and money to train residents.

The evaluation also noted that "Neither extremely adverse prior conditions nor traumatic events like those preceding tenant management in St. Louis are necessary for successful tenant management." HUD chose projects representing a variety of conditions for its demonstration.

The experimental program, which winds up this year, should be continued, researchers said. It will take additional HUD funds to keep paying most of the tenant managers' salaries.

The report cautioned that additional measures will be required to rid public housing of its social problems. "Tenant management was never regarded as an answer to all the problems of public housing. Many of those problems are rooted in general social conditions, extending far beyond the public housing projects themselves."