Martina Himbrick used to do two things upon waking up in her Fairmont Heights apartment. First, she emptied the huge trash cans she had set out to catch rain water leaking into her bedroom from two floors above. That done, she would then scour the area outside her door looking for used drug syringes.

"I'd get up and pick up all the needles and throw them away before the kids could find them," Himbrick said.

Himbrick, 33, who with her three young children lives in the Lodge apartments on Sheriff Road just over the District line in Prince George's County, isn't the only tenant worried about the run-down condition of the 75-unit complex and the drug-related violence from the adjacent shopping area along the 5300 block of Sheriff Road.

Resident manager Nadine Butler said in the month of January alone there were three shootings near the commercial strip. She said drug addicts often hide from police in the Lodge's gutted vacant basement apartments, which double as shooting galleries.

"They do their dirt over there and then come running over here when the heat arrives, shoving and knocking kids out of the way," she said.

But now, with use of a little-noticed, low-interest federal loan program, Himbrick, Butler and the 36 other families who are virtual prisoners of this blighted complex, have reason to hope that things are about to get better. Last week, a local developer, W.A. Bowie & Sons Inc. was awarded a $1.1 million rehabilitation loan to bring the Lodge up to county housing codes and to refurbish kitchens, bathrooms and vacant basement apartments that have been uninhabitable for years.

According to Emelda Johnson-Heller, manager of the county's housing development office, this is the first time a housing rehabilitation loan under the Department of Housing and Urban Development's so-called Section 312 program has been used in the Washington area since the late 1970s. Johnson-Heller said the county plans to "aggressively market the loan {program} to interested developers {for additional projects} as part of our commitment to finance loans for distressed properties, which traditional lenders are not generally eager to do."

She said $235 million is available in the Section 312 program nationally, and "it is one of the few federal programs that is paying for itself."

Developer Wayne Bowie is no stranger to such rehabilitation projects. Until the 1986 Tax Reform Act changed the rules regarding tax-exempt financing, his company used a state loan program to buy and renovate several former HUD-owned properties in Prince George's, including the Bell Haven Apartments in Landover, the Capitol East (now the Village Hawthorne), and the Walker Mill Gardens near Seat Pleasant.

Most recently, Bowie & Sons finished the Antoinette Gardens complex in Capitol Heights, where more than half of the 197 units had stood empty for a decade. When the Bell Haven Apartments were finished three years ago, 70 new families moved in during the first month, Bowie said, many from the county's waiting list of 550 families seeking subsidized housing.

"But the loan for doing the Lodge is just a straight loan. It is below-market, but not tax-exempt," said Johnson-Heller. "The 1986 Tax Reform Act took away most of the advantages to a developer using tax-exempt financing, so we are pushing this method as a way to eliminate blight and get more affordable housing in the county."

Out of about 80,000 multifamily units in the county, only 10 percent can be classified as truly distressed or uninhabitable, said Charles H. Bennett, branch chief in the multifamily inspection section of the county's department of environmental protection. Of these, 592 are at the troubled Glenarden Apartments, 75 at the Lodge and the rest at scattered sites, he said. Most problem complexes are the result of "poor or no on-site management," Bennett said.

Under the Section 312 loan program, developers must agree to limit their return on equity to a total of 20 percent for five years. "That lets them make a living on the rent, but not a killing," Johnson-Heller said.

Currently, tenants at the Lodge pay between $403 and $625 a month for generously sized but severely flawed apartments. Bowie said that, realistically, a two-bedroom apartment with amenities, such as the basketball courts and childrens' playgrounds, which he plans to build at the Lodge, "can run $1,000 a month in this market and no one thinks it's a big deal." Bowie said no one will be displaced during the renovation and that he is required to keep 20 units available for low-income tenants once the face lift is completed late this summer.

One of the first things Bowie did after buying the property from HUD two years ago was to replace the roof. That made life a lot easier for many residents like Himbrick, but enormous problems remain.

This week, security windows and doors were installed and a drainage ditch is being dug to minimize water problems in ground-floor apartments. Bowie said he hauled out about 400 cubic feet of trash from abandoned basement apartments.

Grounds manager Joseph Marrow said his weekly routine still includes filling a couple of huge dumpsters with garbage as well as with used syringes, liquor bottles, aluminum foil cocaine wrappers and make-shift stoves used to cook assorted drugs. The laundry rooms are twisted masses of metal, burst pipes and bashed-in cinder blocks.

"No one in their right mind would go down there, even if the washers did work," Himbrick said. "It's too dangerous."

Bowie acknowledged there is general skepticism about rehabilitation of projects like the Lodge and that some feel it is a waste of money. But Bowie said, "Everyone has the right to decent housing. Not everyone is privileged enough to own a house with a white picket fence around it. Being poor does not mean you're going to kick holes in the wall. Those who do, you evict."

He also said, however, that no amount of renovation will be enough unless the entrenched drug trafficking also is eliminated. So last month, when the county police department said it could not spare the manpower for surveillance, he and other local businessmen hired two off-duty Prince George's police officers to patrol the area. So far, it's cost about $4,000, but Bowie said he sees it as a vital, basic investment in the neighborhood if it is to be turned into a decent place to live.