Jack's Big Payback

How an arrogant, overbearing landlord fought City Hall -- and won

Jack Yetiv has always been the smartest person he knows.
He was 11 years old when his father, an Israeli educator and former diplomat, brought the family to Wisconsin. Young Jack could speak only Hebrew, yet he immediately began waltzing intellectual circles around his peers, which, naturally, made him an object of their contempt. Left to his own devices, Yetiv tunneled through high school in three years, leaving behind his silly, pot-addled classmates to cut class and smoke cigarettes on the sly for another term.

He finished undergraduate work in similar fashion at the University of Hartford, where his father had become a professor. He completed medical school by age 22. At 25, he got his Ph.D. in pharmacology from Ohio State University. By then, he had also co-authored, with one of his teachers, three books on clinical therapeutics.

By any ordinary standard, Jack Yetiv, now 41, is one smart guy. More than a few people, however, had reason to question his intelligence early last year when, in the middle of a lawsuit he was pursuing against the city of Houston, Yetiv fired his attorney and took over representing himself in the complex case.

After all, as the saying goes, "A man who has himself for an attorney has a fool for a client." And any fool knows you can't fight City Hall.

But last month, in the courtroom of state District Judge Dwight Jefferson, Yetiv gave the lie to both cliches in a display of amateur lawyering that was as effective as it was chaotic and insufferably arrogant.

On August 21, after a month-long trial that included testimony from two candidates in the upcoming mayoral election, a ten-man, two-woman jury awarded Yetiv $340,500 in compensation for violations of his Fourth Amendment guarantee against unreasonable search and seizure. The jury's key determination was that city employees filed a false affidavit in order to obtain a search warrant for an October 1994 inspection of Yetiv's Aspenwood Apartment Homes in Spring Branch.

The inspection -- which Yetiv repeatedly referred to in court as a "raid" -- was carried out by more than two dozen city employees, police officers and demolition contractors. Yetiv, an emergency room physician and real estate speculator from California, received more than 20 criminal citations that day, including one for doing repair work without building permits. The charges were later dismissed when city inspectors failed to appear in court.

Yetiv also convinced the jury that the permits he needed to carry out a substantial rehabilitation of his 210-unit complex, which had been declared dangerous in late 1993, were "arbitrarily and capriciously denied" by city officials who wanted the property demolished.

Yetiv had originally named District A Councilwoman Helen Huey and Bea Link, the assistant director of the city's Neighborhood Protection Division, as defendants in his suit, claiming they were responsible for costly delays in repairing the property. Jefferson, however, dismissed Huey and Link from the case before jury selection began. The jury also failed to buy Yetiv's claim that his troubles were the result of public criticism he leveled at Huey, Link and the city's Comprehensive Urban Rehabilitation and Building Standards code.

That defeat was compensated somewhat by Jefferson's ruling that portions of the CURB ordinance, which was written in 1993 by a Council committee chaired by Huey and is enforced by Link's department, are unconstitutional.

In a surprisingly cohesive 50-page motion, Yetiv argued that eight clauses of the city's building code were so vague that even city inspectors charged with enforcing the ordinance couldn't interpret their meaning. Jefferson agreed, setting a precedent that could make CURB harder to enforce. The decision also opened the door to more lawsuits by angry property owners, who have long complained the code shackles them to unreasonable deadlines that make it cheaper and less aggravating to demolish rather than repair.

City Attorney Gene Locke -- whose lawyers were clearly rattled by Yetiv's aggressive and at times comically overwrought courtroom demeanor -- vowed to appeal Jefferson's ruling on CURB. The city plans to appeal the jury's verdict, as well.

While mayoral candidate Huey was no longer a defendant when the case came to trial, there was no mistaking her stake in the litigation, particularly with regard to CURB. In court, Yetiv made continuous reference to the councilwoman's well-known crusade to rid Houston of dangerous buildings. When Huey took the stand to testify -- over the city's futile objections -- it was clear she and Yetiv brought out the worst in each other, a mutual dislike that provided spectators with an entertaining battle of iron wills.

As soon as Huey sat down, the apartment owner presented the councilwoman with a copy of her 1993 campaign brochure. He asked her to look at the cover photograph and, confidently turning toward the jury as if he'd actually done this before, Yetiv said: "Tell us what you're resting your left hand on."

"A sledgehammer," Huey coolly replied.
"A big one?" Yetiv asked, relishing the moment.
"A sledgehammer," repeated the councilwoman, whose web site for her mayoral campaign proudly refers to her by the nickname "Hammerin' Helen."

Yetiv promises to appeal Jefferson's dismissal of Huey, who at one time signaled her support of Aspenwood's rehabilitation. For her part, Huey was obviously miffed by Yetiv's decision to expand his conflict with the city to an attack on her pet ordinance. The councilwoman has called the judge's ruling on CURB "appalling."

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