From rent raises, unsanitary conditions, and plumbing or electrical problems, there are numerous causes that could motivate a tenant to file charges against a landlord. However, the laws governing the relationship between landlords and tenants vary by state, county and city. Thus, there is no single method or place to bring charges, but certain approaches for different types of problems are generally consistent.
Go to small claims. If you're seeking a claim for damages against a landlord in an amount between about $5,000 to $7,000, small claims court can be the place to file your charges. This would be ideal for a situation where a landlord failed to reimburse a tenant for repairs or a security deposit.
Call 311. Many major U.S. cities, such as New York and San Francisco, have created 311 hotline numbers similar to 911, but for non-emergency access to government resources. These usually handle landlord/tenant disputes or can refer a caller to the appropriate agencies. Because cities can have their own, fairly complex, laws governing landlord and tenant relationship, contacting the city can be crucial for getting accurate and reliable information about how to proceed with claims.
Contact relevant agencies or departments. If your local county or city does not put its resources together in an easily accessible format, like a hotline number, the tenant will be forced to track down the relevant authority on his own. This could mean calling the fire department, the building inspector or the health inspector to file a formal complaint. If the issues with the landlord are broad, filing charges with more than one of these might be necessary. This should result in an inspection of the premises, ideally in a timely fashion.
Pursue mediation. Just because charges have been filed, or a complaint lodged with the local authorities, doesn't mean it's too late to work it out with the landlord. If this can't be done informally, hiring an professional mediator can lead to a successful resolution in a fraction of the time and cost of a legal struggle. The American Arbitration Association maintains a list of mediators on its website (see Resources below).
Hire an attorney. For damages exceeding small claims court, or for civil tort actions beyond the scope of municipal remedies, the best thing to do is hire an attorney. A classic situation that would require hiring an attorney would be some sort of personal injury arising from the landlord's negligence. Even if you're not sure the landlord was legally responsible for the injury, consult an attorney. The county bar association can recommend free or discounted legal services in your area that can get you started.