How landlords get away with it (© Nam Y. Huh/AP)

Something unusual happened in Ohio last summer: A landlord was sent to jail, and for more than just a few days.

This landlord got three months — with 15 years tacked on if he ever re-enters the rental business — in what prosecutors say may set a state precedent by holding a landlord criminally responsible, in this case for a fire caused by faulty, home-rigged wiring in his unit.

The outcome of that fire? Five people — an entire family — died, including children ages 7, 6 and 4.

If the punishment seems light, welcome to the tenant's world, say advocates, because the sentence is no surprise: Landlords simply aren't held accountable when they fail to meet health and safety codes.

"We don't live in the Middle Ages. Or do we?" writes tenant lawyer Dave Crow in this blog post. He scoured the Web searching for landlords punished for slum conditions but came up bare. (His law practice also maintains a tenants rights blog.)

"If you kill someone in a car, your feet are held to the fire. If your building burns down because it was a hellhole with no smoke detectors or whatever, it's like, 'oh well,'" Crow says.

Across the country, housing advocates say, irresponsible landlords are allowed to operate under the radar, with little concern about getting caught and no fear of repercussions if they do.

Housing codes may have become strict, but the enforcement of those codes has lagged. As a result, property values suffer. Responsible landlords pay comparatively more. And, most devastating, tenants live with leaky roofs or malfunctioning heaters, with mold or vermin, finding themselves at a loss for where to turn as their requests for repairs repeatedly get put off.

"How do landlords get away with it? Because they can," says Steven Kellman, director of the Tenants Legal Center in San Diego. "The legal burden is on the landlord, but in reality the true burden is on the tenant to enforce these codes."

Hundreds of calls a day for help
Monica Myers, office manager at the Arizona Tenants Advocates, says she takes hundreds of calls a day from tenants unable to get landlords to make needed repairs.

One tenant had a roof gradually caving in, with water seeping into the apartment from the attic. Her landlord told her to fix it herself.

Another tenant asked repeatedly for working locks on the windows. When a man broke in one night, she finally moved, traumatized. Now the landlord is demanding payment for the remainder of the lease term.

"I get that all day long, people who've talked to their landlord and their landlord won't do anything," Myers says. "My big ones are cockroaches, scorpions and mold."

The stories echo throughout tenant-assistance centers everywhere. They are more prevalent in low-income housing, where tenants may lack the reserves to fight or to move, but they strike high earners, too.

Crow says one tenant, paying $4,000 a month, had a landlord who for years refused to fix the roof. The tenant kept asking — and kept pulling out the buckets when it rained. "It was one of those things that just got worse and worse," he says. "Some people just don't know that they can complain to their housing inspectors."

Many tenants who do complain still find that relief comes slowly or not at all.

"Landlords just tell the city they're working on it, or they'll get to it," Kellman says. "Then the city puts their complaint back in rotation and contacts them a month later —  'Yeah, I'm working on it.'"

"The resources are not there," Kellman says. The city inspectors "can't kill a million flies with one swatter."

Even if that particular problem is fixed, what's to keep the landlord from ignoring the next problem? And the next?

In a case settled in a Los Angeles court last year, a landlord who had racked up 2,700 code violations over decades was ordered to pay $2.3 million to 56 tenants who were living in unsafe conditions.

"Even with 2,700 code violations you had to get the lawyers," Kellman says.

Where are the housing police?
By law, rental units everywhere must comply with rigorous city and state housing codes. The problem is that, typically, buildings are inspected only when they are built, change ownership or undergo major renovations requiring a city permit. Damage that's bound to occur over time doesn't get checked out unless a tenant complains.

Furthermore, landlords don't need a license to go into business, as they do to drive a car.  No one asks them to read the rules of the road first, and there's no test required. As Kellman jokes, all a landlord needs "is a deed and a pulse."

Nor do tenants have a ready and easy way to identify whether the unit is legal and up to code. An elevator, restaurant or car displays an inspection certificate with a date. But no such ID is required for the places where people live.

As a result, millions of illegal units are rented out, particularly in times of recession, when the need for low-cost housing rises. Many are retrofits that have never been inspected, renter advocates say.

Adam Murray, executive director of the Inner City Law Center in Los Angeles, says that when his office sends a letter outlining the required repairs, landlords comply within a month or two 98% of the time. Some are simply unaware that the law requires them to act.

"There are an enormous number of unsophisticated landlords," Murray says.

In fact, observes Murray, most property owners are good, responsible landlords who do right by their tenants. But not because they are forced to. "It's largely because they step up to the plate," he says. "It's not because there's pressure."

"They recognize that these are people's homes," he says.

Of course, some landlords are simply cheap, and savvy at gaming the system and stalling on repairs until ordered by a court — an act that requires fighting through so many levels of bureaucracy that it rarely happens.

In the case of irresponsible landlords, the system places the responsibility for reporting problems and demanding action squarely in the hands of those who are often the least likely to do so: the tenants themselves.