THE NEIGHBORS -- what with the apartment not having any curtains to start with -- are probably used to strange sights. Maybe they didn't even notice the Timid Tenant carrying a stack of soaking wet newspapers out to the trash bin. What they didn't know was the newspapers had for a month been soaking up the drippings from a leaking hot water heater.

Perhaps that's the silliest thing you ever heard. Why didn't the Timid Tenant just have the hot water heater repaired?

Why, that would have meant calling the landlord. The same landlord who never came out to fix the windows that had to be cut off their ropes before they would shut. Sometimes it just doesn't seem worth the effort.

The Timid Tenant did not know, until recently, that the maintenance of both the windows and the hot water heater are the responsibility of the landlord and as such enforced under the local housing code. So are a lot of other things: water, lights, paint, plaster, locks, heat, sewerage, refrigerator, cracks in walls, roaches and rats and on and on.

"Just about everything you can think of is covered in the housing code," said P. T. Bronson, chief of the property standards division in the licenses and permits department of Prince George's County, where there are 90,000 rental units.

Call the landlord? Why not call the housing inspector?

That may be the only solution for a number of people this winter when they find themselves without heat or hot water. But whether they get satisfaction even then is anybody's guess.

"The housing inspectors are pretty prompt in responding," said Jack Sheuerman, director of the D.C. Law Students in Court program, "but slow in getting their reports in."

What seems odd, in a city of more than 750,000 residents, is that calls to the District's landlord-tenant office about "recalcitrant landlords," as they are known in the trade, are referred to this group of 85 students from five local universities which has no part at all in the government. D.C. Law Students in Court is funded by the United Way. Yet it handles more than 2,000 cases a year, Sheuerman said.

Residents of the District, cross your fingers. The tenant-landlord office staff has been trimmed from eight persons to two. "What they (in administration) have done is criminal," said Sheuerman.

The office staff would not comment. "I wouldn't want to get myself in trouble," said one of them.

So we took a telephone trip around the Beltway to find out what tenants can expect in Montgomery and Prince George's Counties, Arlington, Alexandria and Fairfax. What we found was different each time. But some procedures cropped up everywhere.

Montgomery County residents, a third of whom live in rental units, appear to have the best deal. The Land-lord-Tenant Commission there has six investigators who take renters through the motions often needed to get action from landlords. These include arbitrating with the landlord, taking written claims, sending out a housing inspector, issuing a citation, if necessary, taking the matter before the commission, if it comes to that, and handling legal details without need of attorney.

"By and large, our success rate has been very good," said director Elise Hall of the 2,000-3,000 cases the commission handles each year.

Folk in Montgomery County have the advantage of being able to make just one call, the commission, for assistance. Not so in Virginia.

In Virginia, the tenant-landlord offices act mostly as referral offices: how to call housing inspector's office; where to go for legal aid; where to find shelter in case of eviction; and calling the landlord to try to straighten things out. Tenant-landlord officials complain -- though not for the record -- that they have no powers of enforcement, under the law, over landlords who fail to live up to the housing codes.

"It isn't that they aren't well-intentioned," said John Reeder, who's on the steering committee of the Tenants of Arlington County organization, "but they haven't been very effective."

Nor is Reeder satisfied with enforcement by the housing inspector's office. "I don't think you can make the case that they have a strict enforcement policy," he said. "They haven't been enforcing."

So Reeder, who spent a year on the Arlington Landlord-Tenant Commission, and other disgruntled renters, organized to force the issue.

In the fall of 1976, Reeder led a tenant association at an Arlington apartment complex that went sporadically without hot water during the summer, then suffered broken boilers and no heat at all when it got cold. The housing inspection office cited the landlord for the violations. But the group had to go to court and eventually received remuneration -- about $45 per tenant, Reeder said -- for damages.

Housing codes are quite specific about requirements for safe and healthy living in an apartment. For instance, in Alexandria heat must be maintained at 68 degrees, three feet above the floor, under normal winter conditions from Oct. 1 through April in all rooms (except from midnight to 5 a.m. -- 62 degrees). Hot water facilities must be properly installed and maintained with temperatures running no less than 120 degrees at every fauct. And the list goes on. (See chart below for specifice in all area jurisdictions.)

If something in your apartment goes haywire, the first step, naturally, is to call the landlord. Officials agree that it's best to keep your relationship with the landlord a good one.Fran Lunney, Executive director of the Arlington Landlord-Tenant Commission, however, says, "It's always good to call in an inspector, not because they can take legal action, but because they can verify the seriousness of the problem."

If the landlord fails to respond, send him a letter by certified mail, receipt requested. If the matter should have to go to court, you will have proof the landlord received your complaint. "Even the smallest note should be copied," said Hall.

Then call the inspector's office. If it is a "health-safety" problem, such as sewer back up, caving-in ceiling, water coming through electrical outlets, loss of heat or hot water, the inspector should be out within 24 hours. If there is a problem, the inspector will cite the landlord for violation of the housing code and give him a period of time in which to comply -- depending on how bad the problem is. (Loss of heat or hot water or electricity or lights is considered pretty bad.)

If the landlord still refuses, then you have a problem. There are several options open to you and the local government.

You can refuse to pay your rent and file suit. "Rent withholding is a pretty serious step," said Sheuerman. It is legal, he said, because the landlord's failure to maintain services is essentially a breach of contract. (However there are many tricky conditions. You need to proceed with much caution and professional advice.) The lease agreement is terminated. If you continue to pay rent, however, "You walk into court saying 'Hey, judge, I've done everthing I could.'"

In Virginia you can put your rent into an escrow account with the court. This requires an attorney, as well as being up to date in your rent payments. Legal services are available free of charge to lower-income persons and new legal referral services are cropping up where fees for short initial consulation are minimal (around $15).

Local governments are empowered to take action of their own. In 80 percent of cases, said Robert Pritchett, acting director of the property standards division in Alexandria's health department, the matter ends when his office sends out a violation notice. But stronger measures are sometimes necessary. In the District, officials can put a tax lien on the property until the landlord complies. Government can also condemn a property, or revoke licenses, take the matter to court, contract for repairs itself and charge the costs to the landlord, and provide shelter to displaced occupants.

The following chart shows the specific requirements for apartment maintenance under local housing codes covering heat under normal winter conditions (that's 10 degrees Fahrenheit in most places), hot water, peeling paint and cracked or falling plaster, and pests, such as rats and roaches. Also listed are the numbers of the respective inspection offices. (TABLE) (COLUMN)Heat(COLUMN)Hot Water(COLUMN)Paint/Plaster(COLUMN)Pests District(COLUMN)68 degrees(COLUMN)120 degrees(COLUMN)Any damage to(COLUMN)In two or more 724-4417(COLUMN)from 6 a.m.(COLUMN)at every(COLUMN)wall, ceiling(COLUMN)units of (COLUMN)to 11 p.m.,(COLUMN)faucet(COLUMN)or floor must(COLUMN)multi-unit (COLUMN)65 from 11(COLUMN)(COLUMN)be fixed in(COLUMN)building are (COLUMN)p.m.-6 a.m.(COLUMN)(COLUMN)affected areas(COLUMN)landlord's (COLUMN)(COLUMN)(COLUMN)(COLUMN)responsibility Arlington(COLUMN)70, 5 a.m.(COLUMN)130, every(COLUMN)affected areas(COLUMN)more than one 558-2711(COLUMN)to midnight,(COLUMN)faucet(COLUMN)must be repaired(COLUMN)unit in mulit- (COLUMN)65 mornings(COLUMN)(COLUMN)(COLUMN)unit complex Alexandria(COLUMN)68, 5 a.m.(COLUMN)120, every(COLUMN)affected areas(COLUMN)more than one 750-6251(COLUMN)to midnight,(COLUMN)faucet(COLUMN)(COLUMN)unit (COLUMN)62, mornings(COLUMN)(COLUMN)(COLUMN) Fairfax(COLUMN)70, 5 a.m.(COLUMN)130, every(COLUMN)affected areas,(COLUMN)any unit which 451-7783(COLUMN)to midnight,(COLUMN)faucet(COLUMN)"must be kept(COLUMN)landlord has (COLUMN)628 mornings(COLUMN)(COLUMN)in good repair(COLUMN)failed to keep (COLUMN)(COLUMN)(COLUMN)and sanitary(COLUMN)pest and rodent (COLUMN)(COLUMN)(COLUMN)condition"(COLUMN)proof Montgomery(COLUMN)68, constant(COLUMN)120, every(COLUMN)affected areas,(COLUMN)two or more units 468-4089(COLUMN)(COLUMN)faucet(COLUMN)kept in "reason-(COLUMN)or "essentially (COLUMN)(COLUMN)(COLUMN)ably good condition"(COLUMN)pest proof" Prince(COLUMN)70, constant(COLUMN)130, every(COLUMN)affected areas(COLUMN)two or more units, George's(COLUMN)(COLUMN)faucet(COLUMN)(COLUMN)"substantially 779-3850(COLUMN)(COLUMN)(COLUMN)(COLUMN)insect and rodent (COLUMN)(COLUMN)(COLUMN)(COLUMN)proof"(END TABLE)

Here are the numbers of area tenant-landlord offices: 727-2424 in the District; 565-7575 in Montgomery County; 952-3200 in Prince George's; 750-6622 (or 750-6483 or -6484 if busy) in Alexandria; 558-2355 in Arlington; 691-3214 in Fairfax.