A developer's plan to raze 128 moderately priced low-rise apartments near the Silver Spring Metro station and replace them with two office buildings has left residents scrambling to find affordable housing in the same neighborhood.

Tenants of the Spring Knolls Apartments between Eastern Avenue and Blair Mill Road have until Sept. 30 to move. The owner, the Miller Cos., intends to demolish the 43-year-old complex and start constructing two 100,000-square-feet office buildings on the site this fall.

Tenant activists fighting the demolition said about half of the tenants already have moved. Thomas Malone, Miller's vice president for development, said the first office building should open next year.

Spring Knolls' property manager, John Napleton, said Miller decided to raze the complex, the first such housing in Silver Spring slated for demolition, because the apartments had gotten too old and required too many repairs.

The company also felt it could make more money from leasing commercial space. "It's like a car," Napleton said. "If a car gets too expensive to keep, you get rid of it."

Although Miller notified residents in early April, many low-income and elderly tenants had difficulty finding housing comparable in price to Spring Knolls, where most rents are in the mid-$400s.

"I've looked for an apartment since I got the eviction letter three months ago, but I can't find one," said Alida Alva, a 14-year Spring Knolls resident who lives with two teen-age daughters in a two-bedroom apartment renting for $462 a month, including utilities. Alva found two-bedroom apartments costing $650 a month, but said she cannot afford the rent on the $10,000 a year she earns as a housekeeper at Holy Cross Hospital. "These apartments Spring Knolls are the cheapest we got."

The Montgomery County Office of Landlord and Tenant Affairs' annual apartment rental survey estimates that rents for two-bedroom Silver Spring apartments average $548 a month including utilities, while countywide they cost $575.

Some of Spring Knolls' elderly residents have lived there for 40 years. Shirley Kline, 65, and her mother, Rousie Baldwin, 89, have lived in a two-bedroom Spring Knolls unit for nine years. Kline found an apartment in Mount Rainier for about the same price as her current one, but will have difficulty commuting to her job as a bookbinder at McArdle Printing Co. across the street from her present apartment.

"I work nights from 4 to 12, and it'll be hard to rely on public transportation at those hours," Kline said. Taking care of her partially deaf mother also will be more taxing because she'll have to spend more time commuting, Kline said.

Other elderly residents on fixed incomes also are worried about being able to afford current market rates, according to one resident in his 70s who has lived at Spring Knolls for 19 years.

Napleton, however, said that no one has complained about not being able to afford rental housing elsewhere and that the Miller Cos. gave residents 180 days' notice rather than the required 60 days so they would have more time to look for new quarters.

The company is reimbursing tenants for moving expenses up to $750, as required by county law, and has met with the tenants several times to direct them to county agencies that can help them relocate, he said.

Alva said she immediately applied to the Housing Opportunities Commission for help after first learning of the building's impending demise in April. She said residents were told they would receive priority for public housing, but that the commission placed her on a three-year wait list.

Joyce Siegel, the commission's community relations director, denied that the agency had placed anyone on a three-year wait list. "I can't say that we will move someone into a place immediately, but there won't be an enormous wait, either," she said. "No one can apply and get an apartment that day. We're not set up for emergency housing."

The Montgomery housing and community development department has a tenant displacement fund that gives qualifying tenants up to $3,500 over two years to pay the difference between their new and old apartment rents and a rental assistance program that pays up to $90 a month for households with a total yearly income of up to $25,000.

Some Spring Knolls tenants have organized to fight the demolition, but have found there is little they can do to avert it. The Montgomery Office of Consumer Affairs can purchase an apartment complex if it is put up for sale, but in this case Miller already owns the property and will develop the land itself, according to Joe Giloley, the agency's program manager.

Nonetheless, some residents said they still are trying to halt the evictions. Mary Reardon, a resident of the adjoining Spring Gardens Apartments, said the Spring Knolls/Spring Gardens Tenants Association is seeking a one-year moratorium on razing rental units and on further Silver Spring commercial development. Currently, the area in which Spring Knolls and Spring Gardens are located is zoned for commercial development, county officials said.

Although Reardon conceded that the association's efforts probably won't save Spring Knolls, she said the members still will fight along with other Silver Spring tenant associations because they fear a domino effect from the Spring Knolls demolition.

Giloley said, "We're seeing a lot of rents going up and a lot of rental units going off the market. And we don't see a lot of alternative housing at the same price of Spring Knolls that's convenient to the public transportation the residents need."

Yet the market for moderately priced rental housing will worsen next spring when developers tear down the St. Charles Apartments on Cameron Street in Silver Spring, another older, low-rise complex. In that case, the developer has agreed to replace the 80 one-bedroom units with a 430-unit high-rise that will reserve 53 apartments for low- and moderate-income tenants, Giloley said.

Giloley said the Miller Cos. told him it will raze the Spring Gardens complex once it determines how well the office space on the Spring Knolls site is leasing.