Nightmare on Pech Road

An apartment owner tangles with a bureaucracy that makes up the rules as it goes along

Jack Yetiv was, at one time, that rarest of creatures: a Spring Branch landlord in good standing. While the area's rundown, low-income apartment units were being demolished and replaced by swanky red-brick Georgians, Yetiv became a poster child for what city officials called the "responsible" renovation of dangerous buildings.

In May, Yetiv, accompanied by Councilwoman Helen Huey, showed a local television crew around Aspenwood Apartments, a dilapidated complex he planned to renovate. In August, Huey herself posed for a Press photographer at a yet-to-be-restored unit at the complex, crouching amid the squalor in a snappy tricolor ensemble accented by a pair of black-and-white pumps. The councilwoman's message was that even she -- a woman who has been called a human wrecking ball because of her campaign to rid Houston of dangerous buildings -- supports rehabilitation by upstanding property owners like Jack Yetiv.

That was then. Today, the future of Aspenwood is in jeopardy while Yetiv and the city threaten to take each other into court. The city says that, since April, when he bought the apartments, Yetiv has been doing his rehabilitation without the proper plans and permits. In late October, building inspectors visited Aspenwood and issued about two dozen Municipal Court citations to Yetiv. Two weeks ago, City Council authorized the city attorney's office to file suit against the owner for various building code violations.

"What I'm told is that when it came time to pay for the permits, to submit the plans and submit to the inspections, he refused to do that," says Tim Austin, an assistant city attorney.

Yetiv says the claim that he won't spend $300 for permits after sinking an estimated $200,000 into rehabilitation is absurd. He insists that he has bent over backward to show good faith in his repair efforts and that, despite not having permits, he has not tried to hide any of the work done on Aspenwood. He also says that he tried numerous times to get permits, only to be told that because Aspenwood was a dangerous building he would require special approval from the city's Neighborhood Protection Division -- which, he discovered, was a complicated and demanding condition.

Now, as far as Yetiv is concerned, the city can keep its permits. He has agreed to stop work on the apartments while he awaits his day in court. Once there, he hopes to show that the renovation efforts by him and other owners of dangerous buildings are being stymied by an out-of-control bureaucracy that makes up its rules as it goes along.

"You just don't know what they want from you," he says. "Even if what they're asking for is not in the building codes, we'd have no problem with their demands if it was standard policy. But it's not -- it's different things for different people. If they want something torn down, all they need to do is keep putting up the obstacles until it becomes impossible to do the work."

Back in April, there appeared to be no reason to suspect things would go so wrong. Yetiv, who owns two other low-income apartment buildings in Spring Branch, says he told Huey in mid-1993 that he was in the market for another complex. She recommended the property at 2121 Pech Road, then known as Gardenview, a good percentage of which was declared dangerous in November 1993.

Yetiv agreed to buy the complex only after meeting with Bea Link, the assistant director of the Neighborhood Protection Division, which oversees dangerous buildings. Yetiv and Link agree that the meeting went well, with both sides pledging to work together to make 2121 Pech -- which Yetiv renamed Aspenwood -- a nice place for low-income people to live.

But they fail to agree on anything that has happened since. Yetiv, in fact, has come to distrust the city so much that he follows up every contact with city officials with a letter to Link. His dealings with the city, while perhaps not quite the "Kafkaesque" experience his attorney describes, certainly reflect a frustrating process that would discourage most people from going to the trouble of repairing a dangerous building in Houston.

Link's early demands of Yetiv were simple: submit a "cure plan" outlining the work to be done and a time frame for its completion; file an application to extend the dangerous building order, which was due to expire on June 23, and get the proper building permits.

Yetiv filed for the extension before he even closed on the deal to buy the complex. A day or so later, he submitted a plan, only to have it rejected by Link. A month later, Yetiv submitted another, modeled on the accepted plans submitted by a property owner who was about to complete a similar renovation.

Link claims that Yetiv never submitted the proper plans. When told that the city's own records indicate that Yetiv's plans were accepted by the city on May 20, Link explains that what Yetiv submitted was "inadequate." What he should have done, she says, was get an occupancy inspection by Tony Balay, the chief building inspector.

But Yetiv says he wasn't told that until he submitted his plans and his extension application. And though such an inspection isn't normally required, according to the building code, until after construction, Yetiv agreed to the inspection when Link told him it would help determine what work he needed to do. Based on the outcome of the inspection, she explained, he could then submit a revised plan and extension request.

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