Parents still often find themselves excluded from rental apartments in the District because they have children, despite a strict two-year-old city law prohibiting discrimination in housing against families with children, local housing activists charge.

"We see it all the time," said Sister Kate McDonnell, director of the Housing Counseling Service in Adams-Morgan. Landlords "pay no attention to the law," she said.

Landlords and property managers dispute this, some saying they are not happy about having to take children but that they do it because they have to.

"We did have to conform" to the law, said Byron (Chris) Christenson, former president and current vice president of the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington. "Ninety-nine percent of our members will do it [rent to children] -- reluctantly, but we'll do it."

Christenson added, however, that "there may be a lot of independents small landlords out there who are playing games. . . . But we [AOBA] tell them, 'If you're going to play games, be prepared to get caught.' "

The D.C. Office of Human Rights reports that an increasing number of people are reporting discrimination against children now.

"There has been an enormous increase of families with children that felt they were discriminated against because of their children," said Roland Williams of the human rights office, which is responsible for enforcing the law.

Frank Emmet, head of the property management firm that bears his name, said he has refused to discriminate against families with children, even though some landlords have asked him to keep kids out of their buildings.

"The law is the law. . . . I tell them my license is more important than your one account," Emmet said. He also estimated that seven of 10 landlords he deals with are unaware that this form of discrimination is against the law.

But housing counselors and Williams in the D.C. human rights office say some landlords and property managers have found sophisticated ways around the law, making it difficult to prove or even realize that discrimination has occurred. Others, they say, are blatant about discriminating.

Franciena Turner, a student at Strayer College who works part time at the Housing Counseling Service, says she knows first-hand about the problem and that some of the apartment managers she dealt with did not even attempt to conceal the reason she was being turned away.

Turner said that, in looking for an apartment in the District for herself and her son, she was told outright two or three times that she was being refused because she had a child. At one building, Turner said she applied and was accepted only to be denied the apartment later when she mentioned her son.

District law provides that a landlord may not turn down prospective renters because they have children as long as the total number of persons is within these guidelines: up to two persons in an efficiency, three in a one-bedroom apartment, five in a two-bedroom unit and seven in a three-bedroom unit. Buildings that are exclusively for persons over 60 years of age and certain owner-occupied residences, such as rooming houses or private homes with English basements, are exempt from that law.

But violations of the law are often hard to prove, the housing counselors say. For one thing, it often overlaps with other forms of discrimination -- against blacks, women or people with foreign accents, they say. It affects low-income persons more than upper-income families, they added.

"Sometimes the advertising of [an apartment] discourages people from even calling," said Williams . Some managers screen by phone according to how the apartment-hunter sounds, while others say "by appointment only" so people can be judged on their appearance, he said.

"A woman will go to a location with a child and be told 'no.' They don't even go through the motions of taking an application and saying she doesn't have enough income to qualify," Williams said.

When people have to apply in person, they may be told no apartment is available if they do not appear to be the kind of tenant the landlord wants, the counselors said. Other times, an application will be taken, and the person told that someone else's application was there first.

"There is no way the city can check that out. There is no control at all," said housing counselor George Gurley. "There is discrimination. I know it. Everyone knows it. But they have a system for discrimination, and you can't do anything about it."

Carol Rende, director of equal housing opportunity at the Metropolitan Washington Planning & Housing Association, which pushed hard for the antidiscrimination law, said people often will not complain about this form of bias because they do not know they have been discriminated against, because they do not know they have legal recourse or because they don't want to take the time and effort to protest.

"One of the things you don't think about while you're out apartment-hunting, though you're angry at perceived discrimination , is what [you] can do about it. You just go on to the next unit," Rende said. "Most people just say, 'That's life.' "

The solution is not a change in the law, but in the education of both affected families and landlords, Rende said. Some landlords may not yet realize that this form of discrimination is against the law, though she believes others have decided to "take a chance" because "they know there has been relatively lax enforcement."

Williams and housing counselor McDonnell also complained that District apartment ads indicating that children are excluded continue to appear in The Washington Post. On a recent Sunday, there were a handful of these ads, only one specifically stating "no children," but others advertising "adult buildings." One referred to a one-bedroom unit as a "bachelor apartment," and another stated a preference for a senior citizen. While some of these may fall within the city's two exceptions, some appeared not to.

One ad for an "adult building" in the Catholic University area gave Feldman Realty as a contact. A woman answering the phone there said that designation meant "no children, no pets." Informed of the District's antidiscrimination law, she said she was unaware of it and would have someone else call back. After a reporter called several more times, a woman answering the phone said "they company officials will have no comment," refused to give her name and then hung up.

One man advertising an "adult building," when contacted by phone, indicated he thought he is exempted because he is an owner-occupant in a four-unit building. For this size building, however, the exception would apply only if the families shared a bathroom or kitchen, according to a legal expert at the human rights office.

A spokesman for the Classified Advertising section of the Post said it is the paper's policy not to run ads for anything illegal and that any ad suspected of violating discrimination statutes is supposed to be checked. However, he said, it is difficult to keep track of all the laws in several jurisdictions, and some improper ads "may slip through."

The District is the only local jurisdiction that has a law prohibiting discrimination against families with children. The federal government has a similar requirement in its subsidized housing, though complaints from the District are directed to the city government because the local law is stricter, a HUD spokesman said.

The problem has started to get attention in other local jurisdictions, however. Hearings were held in the Maryland legislature last year on a bill prohibiting this form of discrimination, a House Judiciary Committee staff aide said.

In Alexandria, the Landlord-Tenant Relations Board has asked that discrimination against renters with children be included as a prohibited category under the city's civil rights law, said Mark Looney at the board. The city's most recent survey showed that half of the units in Alexandria are restricted in some way to children, he said. There have been "quite a few" complaints from families with children unable to find apartments, he added.

In 1980 a nationwide study commissioned by the Department of Housing and Urban Development found that a quarter of all units in the country did not allow children, and only about a quarter accepted children with no restrictions.

When the District law was being considered in 1980, the Apartment and Office Building Association estimated that of 70 percent of the city's 100,000 garden-apartment units rented to families with children as long as the total number of persons came within industry occupancy guidelines, lower than those finally adopted by the city.

The group, representing landlords, opposed the legislation prohibiting discrimination against children, saying that some apartment buildings have no safe place for children to play and that overcrowding is detrimental to people. Families with four or more children are the ones that have the biggest problem finding rental units, but these families could not be housed in most apartment units anyway, the group said.