"When I got there, it was obvious that I wasn't what he expected. I felt I was denied the apartment because of my race," said Tapscott, who is black. She became convinced when the apartment continued to be advertised for three weeks.

The 31-year-old Tapscott, whose job is to investigate similar complaints for Arlington County's Fair Housing Board, wasn't surprised by her own encounter with discrimination. "It's happened before," she said.

Fair housing advocates and local government officials say that housing discrimination endures here, 14 years after the passage of a federal civil rights act that established the nation's fair housing laws. The degree to which it endures, however, is subject to interpretation and sometimes difficult to measure, they say.

Local investigators say complaints encompass rich and poor neighborhoods, big and small realty firms and rentals and sales.

"Discrimination is discrimination, no matter if you're pulling $100,000 or $10,000, you can be discriminated against," said Carol Rende, the Metropolitan Washington Planning and Housing Association's director of equal housing opportunity.

Investigators point to other instances of discrimination, which they say are examples of common complaints:

In Suitland, a divorced mother with two young children was denied a two-bedroom apartment because of her family's makeup and the landlord's stated belief that she wouldn't supervise her children.

In Bethesda, between 1975 and 1980, five couples were told by agents of the then Parkside Apartments that they would not qualify to be tenants because they were unmarried.

"Discrimination has decreased since 1968 when the current federal housing law was established but not to the extent that we might think," said William Welch, executive director of Prince George's County Human Relations Commission.

While most local fair housing advocates and officials interviewed called discrimination still a serious problem for buyers as well as renters, Hans Nestler, executive vice president of the Montgomery County Board of Realtors, disagreed: "We see no serious problem of discrimination" in the sale of housing, he said. He contends that some advocates' description of the problem is not based on reality.

"I think there are some Realtors who are unaware of all the facts about fair housing, but business is bad enough without losing it to discrimination," he said. "There's not enough sales to do that."

The extent of housing discrimination locally is difficult to measure, the fair housing advocates and government officials say. The numbers of complaints filed with local agencies, ranging from less than 20 for 1980 and 1981 in Fairfax County to 61 last year in Prince George's County, reflect only the tip of the problem, they maintain--in part because people aren't aware of their rights.

In Arlington County, cases jumped from four in 1972 to 88 in 1980. Fifty were filed in 1981 and more than 45 in fiscal year 1982, which ended June 30. In Montgomery County, 19 complaints were filed in 1980 and 28 in 1981. In the District, 25 cases were reported last year. Officials said they saw no pattern for yearly differences in complaints.

But they noted that most persons don't bother filing a complaint when they encounter discrimination in their hunt for a house or an apartment. "They figure if the landlord is a bigot, why live there," said Stephen Levinson, Alexandria's human rights administrator.

Tapscott can sympathize with the reluctance to complain because she didn't in her own case.

"Yes, my rights were violated; yes, I was angry; yes, I felt humiliated," but a legal fight for the efficiency apartment was not worth it, she said. She acknowledged that her decision "is not a good example" of what others should do.

But Tapscott didn't let the discrimination go unchecked. After seeing the apartment continually advertised, she again visited the landlord and again was told the unit had been rented. Then she told him she worked at the Fair Housing Board.

"The guy turned so red after I gave him my card," she said. He quickly offered to rent her another apartment, but she declined. She sent him "some literature on my program, and I suggested he read the fair housing law."

While many victims won't complain, Tapscott and other fair housing investigators said the main reason discrimination goes unmeasured is that it generally is so subtle that most persons never realize they were unfairly treated.

"If you go to an apartment complex, and they say there aren't any units available, are you going to think that it's because of you or the person you're with or one of your kids looks weird? No, you won't assume that," Welch said. "You may feel that they're telling the truth: that there are no vacancies."

Local agencies report that most complaints of discrimination are based on race, although cases involving sex, national origin and marital status are on the upswing in some areas. Most complaints involve rental rather than sales, generally because the discrimination is easier to detect, officials said.

The Civil Rights Act prohibited discrimination in housing based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Most local governments have enacted additional prohibitions of their own.

The District has the most comprehensive law, outlawing 11 types of discrimination in addition to the five banned by the federal government, while Arlington County added one--marital status. Other jurisdictions' coverage generally varies between those two extremes.

The District law covers marital status, personal appearance, sexual orientation, political affiliation, age, source of income, family responsibility, matriculation, place of residence, physical handicap and families with children.

The District is the only jurisdiction here that bars discrimination against families with children. In fact, only one or two other governments in the country cover children, said Anne Turpeau, a spokeswoman for the D.C. Office of Human Rights.

The fair housing advocates and government officials say federal and local fair housing laws account for discrimination today being less of a problem than it once was. But some fear that a tight housing market, combined with what they call a laxity by the Reagan administration in enforcing fair housing, may create more opportunities for discrimination.

"We believe there is a correlation between the tight housing market and the incidents of discrimination," said James H. Harvey, executive director of the Metropolitan Washington Planning and Housing Association. "When housing gets tight, then you tend to have a group of people vying for the same apartment . The landlord has to make an arbitrary decision."

He said opportunities for discrimination also has increased since the 1960s because of changes in the housing industry, particularly the growth of condominiums.

"In an apartment building with one owner, he has lawyers to keep up on all the laws," said Rende, the association's director of equal housing opportunity. But in a condominium, "all the units are owned by individuals who are very less likely to know what fair housing laws are all about. So you have more individuals to act on their biases" when selling or renting their units.

Rita Morgan of Suburban Maryland Fair Housing Inc., an advocacy group based in Kensington and serving Montgomery County, said the organization's checks for discrimination and cross burnings and vandalism aimed at blacks and Jews indicated a resurgence of discrimination in recent years in the county, although it is still far less than it once was.

She attributes the growth partly to the Reagan administration's laxity. "It's a signal to landlords that the heat's off," she said.

Martin E. Sloane, executive director of the National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing, said the "federal slackening of enforcement" makes it "reasonable to think that the problem has not lessened but has intensified" since a U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department study five years ago, although no similar study has been done since.

The study, based on surveys conducted in 40 metropolitan areas, concluded that blacks could expect to encounter discrimination 72 percent of the time if they visited four rental agents and 48 percent of the time if they called on four sales agents.

The administration's laxity means "the burden, virtually the full burden, of fair housing right now falls on private fair housing advocates," Sloane said. He charged that the federal government "has virtually abandoned" its role in enforcing the fair housing law.

The administration filed its first housing discrimination lawsuit Feb. 4 and its second March 25, charging that apartment owners in Boston and Detroit, respectively, refused to rent to blacks. Justice Department statistics show the Carter administration filed 10 suits in its first year.

"The plain fact is that for more than a year the Justice Department under President Reagan did not file a single lawsuit," Sloane said.

He also pointed to the administration's withdrawal of regulations designed to interpret and clarify the fair housing law as another example of its soft approach. The rules were proposed by the Carter administration.

While agreeing Reagan is doing less in fair housing enforcement, Welch said, "we haven't really had anyone attacking this problem as they should. When the federal government was doing its best, it wasn't enough." Local agencies doing their best also aren't doing enough, he said.

Although the administration may have lead realty firms to believe they can get away with more, Fred Allen, executive director of Fairfax County's Human Rights Commission, vowed: "Not in Fairfax. We'll enforce the laws as strictly as possible."

Antonio Monroig, HUD's assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity, defended the administration's fair housing actions. "Definitely we're not diminishing our responsibilities as to enforcement," he said, noting that in April, Reagan issued a proclamation pledging vigorous enforcement.

Monroig said it is unfair to compare the numbers of lawsuits filed by the Carter and Reagan administrations. "It's not only a matter of quantity; it's also quality," he said. "Maybe we can solve many simple cases in one year. Maybe in one year we solve two or three or four cases that are far more important because they would really go to change relationships or something like that. It's not a matter of numerical statistics only."

He said HUD, which lacks legal muscle of its own on fair housing, has referred at least 25 cases to the Justice Department for possible prosecution. A Justice spokesman declined to tell the status of those cases but said the two suits filed this year were prompted by fair housing groups.

Monroig also defended HUD's withdrawal of the fair housing regulations, proposed during the last month of the Carter administration. "I sort of distrust things that you do at the very last minute, especially after you have lost the election," he said. "I doubt very much the sincerity of things like that."

He refused to be pinned down on when the rules will be reissued. "At this moment, we're not planning to issue them," he said.

Like fair housing advocates, Monroig said HUD needs legal power to enforce the law. He said HUD, in addition to the Justice Department, should be allowed to file lawsuits. "I think it will be a tremendous strengthening of the whole process of fair housing," he said.

HUD currently takes complaints and tries to persuade landlords or realty agents and potential tenants or homebuyers to reach a voluntary compromise. In fiscal year 1981, 3,710 individuals nationwide filed complaints with HUD. It already had 615 complaints left from previous years. Conciliation was attempted in 900 cases in 1981, succeeding in 674.

Monroig also affirmed the administration's commitment to fair housing by pointing out it has not cut the $5.1 million given in both 1981 and 1982 and proposed in 1983 to local and state governments for fair housing enforcement, calling the program "one of our priorities."

For the 1984 budget, now under consideration by the administration, "I don't see any substantial changes to the program," he said.

For those who do suspect discrimination locally, area governments are set up to investigate complaints and most can issue corrective orders. Fair housing groups also field complaints but generally refer them to the appropriate agency.

Depending upon the case, the Washington Planning and Housing Association will help persons file discrimination lawsuits or will join the suit with a lawyer provided at no charge from the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The lawyers group also takes cases referred to it by other groups.

Most complaints filed with government agencies are dropped by the victims or found to be without cause, officials said. They said the verified cases usually are settled during the agency's investigation or conciliation stages, with the individual results keep secret. Few cases go to a public hearing and rarely do they go to court, they said.

The discrimination case against the Suitland mother was settled after investigators from Prince George's County Human Relations Commission notified the landlord of the woman's complaint and explained the law, said Bonnie Beck, the agency's chief of community relations and housing. The landlord offered the apartment to the family.

She said the landlord originally denied the two-bedroom apartment because he believed a single parent with two children needed a three-bedroom unit, although a couple with one child would have qualified. He also thought the children would not be properly supervised. Beck said the case violated the marital status and age provisions of the county's fair housing law.

In the Bethesda case involving Parkside Apartments, the Montgomery County Human Relations Commission's housing panel found the unmarried couples' complaints valid and ordered corrective steps. Parkside's management had contended that the county's fair housing law covering marital status should not be applied to unmarried couples. The management, which before the hearing had sold the building for condominium conversion, appealed the order in court but dropped it after reaching an undisclosed, out-of-court settlement with the plaintiffs.

Of the local agencies and private groups, only the 20-year-old Suburban Maryland Fair Housing regularly sends out black and white volunteers to test for discrimination at the same apartment building or real estate agency. The Metropolitan Washington Planning and Housing Association has plans to set up a similar program.

Thirty-five tests were conducted during the past year under a contract with the county's Human Relations Commission, said Morgan, chairman of the group's testing committee. The county itself will pay the group to do 30 tests this coming year, she said.

Testers are sent to buildings or agents after complaints or suspicions of discrimination, said Mike Dennis, compliance director of the commission. "We don't do fishing expeditions," he said.

Of the past year's 35 tests--31 on rentals and four on home sales--most found no discrimination, Morgan said. "It shows that discrimination is the exception rather than the rule, and that's heartening," she said.

The tests' results were given to the commission, and "from our point of view, about six or seven cases were suspicious," she said. But only one test prompted a discrimination charge to be filed by the agency. Dennis refused to say why more complaints were not filed or to give details about the one charge, citing a county law keeping such information secret.

The fair housing group used to file discrimination suits based on its testing results, said John Burchard, treasurer. The right of fair housing advocates and testers to file such suits was affirmed in February by the U.S. Supreme Court in a case involving a Richmond group, Housing Opportunities Made Equal.

Several local enforcement officers said they frequently seek to publicize fair housing laws and their agencies' services to the community and realty firms.

Arlington's Tapscott said she has "developed an element of trust" with realty agents and landlords to work with them to end discrimination. "Fair housing agencies and the housing industry have for many years been adversaries. Voluntary compliance can work, and it is working here and across the country."

with photos by Fred Sweets (WP) and James K.W. Atherton(WP)