Tenants don't like to complain
Larry Jayson, executive director of Brooklyn Family & Housing Services, sent workers to the lobby of a six-story rental in a nice neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., to help residents fill out forms to report code violations. The building was filthy and without heat or hot water. Of more than 40 tenants they spoke with, only a half-dozen agreed to participate.

Many were Russian-born, and immigrants are "more afraid of the landlord than anything else," Jayson says. "The landlord has the ability to intimidate them."

Non-immigrants are not immune from the fear of retaliation either, housing experts say. Experienced slumlords may target tenants with little money or poor credit, those for whom it is not easy to move.

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And even high-income tenants don't want to make waves. When polite requests go unfulfilled, many give up, fearing retribution. Once the lease is up, in most cases a landlord can raise or change the terms of the rent, or evict a tenant without giving a reason. Suddenly, that cat may not be allowed, or the extra family member might have to go.

"We come from this cultural background of fearing landlords," Crow says. "Tenants are people who often don't complain in time, who want to get along, who are afraid of getting thrown out of their units."

The Los Angeles answer
Los Angeles is one of the few cities to recognize this. While investigating poor tenant conditions in the 1990s, officials discovered that relying on tenants to self-enforce just wasn't working.

In 1998, the city started routine enforcements of all rental housing. In the first round of checks, the Systematic Code Enforcement Program identified 1.9 billion deficiencies.

In the first decade, the number of housing inspectors for the city's 800,000 rental units jumped from 14 to 203, and landlords made $1.6 billion in repairs. The only problem: The property values in those neighborhoods rose, allowing some rental prices to go up.

The program is funded by tenants through a $3 monthly fee that is tacked on to the rent and passed on to the city.

The idea has received awards for innovation; similar programs are under way or in development elsewhere.

Tenants — it's up to you
"If other cities would adopt that program, it'd be a great idea," says Ken Carlson, a lawyer who offers advice at Caltenantlaw.com. "But landlord/tenant law is all very political; it's the haves versus the have-nots."

Carlson has represented both landlords and tenants for a quarter century. His biggest piece of advice to tenants: vote.

"If 10% of tenants could show up in a bloc and vote, all of tenant law would change in a second," he says. "Politicians would be wooing the tenant vote, promising to correct some of these injustices."

A third of Americans, more than 35 million households, currently rent.

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The problem, advocates say, is that tenants usually have good reason to be cautious about standing up for themselves. Only two states and a few cities have just-cause eviction laws, which require that landlords provide legal justification for evicting someone. And only a few towns have rent-control laws. Everywhere else, landlords don't need a reason to evict or raise the rent dramatically.

Bill Deegan, a former real-estate broker who now rents, is striving to create national laws to protect tenants. In 2009, he and a partner founded the American Tenants Association in an effort to help tenants organize, provide a political voice and serve as a clearinghouse for information.

Seek local help
In the meantime, tenants need to find local resources. Most important, advocates say, is to find accurate information.

Start with a search online for staffed agencies able to provide personal help. (Watch out for online forums, which can give inaccurate information.) Call your town's housing office and ask to speak to someone who can answer your questions directly. If the landlord acts in a retaliatory manner, remember it is against the law.

Of course, it will be up to you to find a lawyer. And it's difficult to impossible to find a pro bono tenant lawyer.

"If the landlord retaliates, that gives the tenant the right to get compensation," Kellman says. "But you have to take action to turn that right into a reality. Your rights don't jump off the page of the code book and fight for you."