When Thelma R. Hayes and Emma Lee received notices that their families were being evicted from the Garfield Hill apartment project near Suitland Parkway, they decided to fight.

"We have been here half our lives," said Hayes. "It is more like home than anywhere we came from."

In the three years since the notices arrived, Hayes and Lee have fought a lonely battle. The other tenants in the 94-unit development, at 24th Place and Irving Street SE, moved out. For a while the water and electricity were turned off, and the families hauled water from a fire station across the street and slept under piles of blankets in front of camp stoves.

But they refused to give up. With the help of a Neighborhood Legal Services attorney, they took the development's owner, Diamond Housing Corp., to court and began to look for ways to stay at Garfield Hill.

Now it appears that their struggle is nearly over. What began as a two-family crusade has evolved into an unusual rehabilitation project involving local and federal housing programs that could become a model for low- and middle-income projects in other parts of the country.

If all goes according to plan, former tenants of Garfield Hill will return to the complex after renovations are completed next year.

The National Housing Partnership -- a private organization that renovats low- and middle-income housing -- will purchase the development's seven low-rise buildings from Diamond and rehabilitate them, using the Garfield Hill Tenants Association as an adviser. NHP will get the $450,000 purchase price and $3.5 million in rehabilitation funds from the D.C. Housing Finance Agency.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development already has approved the project for its Section 8 rent-subsidy program. HUD will pay the difference between what the low- or middle-income tenants can afford and what the apartments would rent for on the open market.

Former tenants are being given first on the apartments, and 50 have been located who meet Section 8 income requirements and want to move back in.

The tenant's association hopes eventually to purchase Garfield Hill. Its agreement with NHP calls for the housing group to set aside part of its profits from the project for a tenants' purchase fund.NHP also will train tenants in property management and will consult them about the design of the apartments, trash pickup, rent increases and leases, staff hiring and firing, and the annual operating budgets.

Some aspects of the proposal have not been completed. For example, the agreement between NHP and the tenants association has not yet been signed.And the financing won't be available until the D.C. Housing Finance Agency issues its first tax-free revenue bonds in December.

However, Carolyn Oakley, housing finance director, sees "no hitches in the plan at this point."

"Whatever the problems are, we will be able to work them out. We are all gung-ho to get this project going," she said.

Subcontractors are surveying that development to determine what needs to be done. Plans already call for new roofs, electrical and water systems, kitchens and bathrooms.

And the Hayes and Lee families have been accomodated. NHP will move them into temporary quarters while Garfield Hill is renovated and will help pay their rent.

Hayes and Lee are relieved that the battle is almost over.

"I can live happy," said Hayes, who has spent more than 30 years in the development, which was built as federally insured housing for black World War II veterans and the elderly.

She said she hopes that Garfield Hill will again be "a real community," the way she says it was in the 1950s and '60s. "It was a beautiful place to bring up kids," she recalled. Everyone's door was open all day, and children ran from one house to another. The apartments were built around courtyards, and in the evenings residents would gather on the front steps to discuss the days news, she said.

But by the late 1970s, the development underwent a significant change. In December 1977, the Karl W. Corby Co. notified tenants the development was being taken over by Diamond.

The next month someone slid an eviction notice under Lee's door and through Hayes' mail slot. It said tenants had to leave because Garfield Hill was going to be rehabilitated. Some tenants talked to Neighborhood Legal Services seeking an alternative, but most moved out. Maintenance stopped. By October all but the two families had left. They had decided to stay after talking to Legal Services lawyer Paula Scott.

That first winter was difficult, and Thelma Hayes says it also was "nerve-wracking."

"When those people came and cut off things it was hard -- cutting off the water, cutting off the heat, cutting off the electricity," she said. "I just jumped on the phone and called Paula and Sara." By this time Sara Case from the National Housing Law Project, a federally supported legal services backup center, had joined with Scott in providing legal guidance for the Lees, the Hayes and other former tenants.

The two families -- Hayes with her daughter, son and grandson and Lee with her daughter and granddaughter -- persevered with extra blankets and camp stoves. They hauled water daily from the local fire station.

With Diamond's evictions tied up in litigation, the company offered the women payments to move out, but Lee says, "We didn't accept because we still wouldn't be here."

"I go with the property," said Hayes. "You buy the property, you buy us too."

At the urging of Scott, the D.C. Housing Department stepped in and worked out an agreement under which the city would provide the utilities for the two apartments and bill Diamond Housing.

In March 1981, Case sought out the National Housing Partnership to buy the apartment building from Diamond. She did so reluctantly, because by then the Hayeses, the Lees and some former residents had formed a tenant's association and wanted to control the building themselves.

Lisa Kolker, project developer for NHP, said she was "intrigued by the viability of the project" because it came with the tenants eager to move in and take care of it and city housing authorities committed to making it work.

The private-sector housing partnership was established in the 1968 Housing and Urban Development Act with a mandate to stimulate the production of low- and moderate-income housing. It is owned by almost 300 major corporations, financial institutions and labor unions. So far it has produced 60,000 housing units nationwide, using government-subsidized programs and private capital. After the NHP builds or renovates units, it sells them to private investors seeking tax shelters, but NHP retains responsibility for its projects and guarantees all operating deficits forever, Kolker said.

The NHP's agreement to give the tenants association first option to buy Garfield Hill and to train tenants in management is unusual. The housing group went along with the tenants' wishes because the HUD rental subsidy program lasts only 20 years, and tenants were concerned they might have to start all over again after that time.

Once the major elements in the agreement were worked out, Hayes and Lee began looking forward to living normal lives in a renovated Garfield Hill.

Hayes admitted it will take a while to become accustomed to having neighbors again. "I can't run out to the clothesline in my slip anymore," she said.