Jack's Big Payback

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

"Who's she to call the judge's decision 'appalling'?", roars Yetiv, who seems unable, or unwilling, to stop sharing his newfound legal expertise.

"The U.S. Supreme Court case Grayned v. City of Rockford in 1972 laid down the standard that says a law is constitutional if a person of average intelligence knows what's required to stay within the law," he argues. "It was a lay-down case. We didn't even have to go to the man on the street -- we had the city's own inspectors admit they couldn't understand it."

A lanky, bushy-browed fellow who wears his wavy black hair in a ponytail, Yetiv exudes an intensity that seems to vibrate off his frontal lobes in waves. While satisfied with the verdict, he's hardly surprised that he won his case; he possesses none of that I-must-be-dreaming posturing so often expressed by the underdog. The jury's monetary award means nothing to him. Yetiv seems most pleased that, once again, he's proved himself smarter than his antagonists -- who, in this case, happened to be a woman who yearns to be the next mayor of Houston, a powerful city bureaucrat and two assistant city attorneys who had the presumed advantage of law school educations.

"I was a multimillionaire when this started," Yetiv clucks as he leans back in a squeaky office chair, "and I'm still a multimillionaire. I mean, c'mon, did it look like Jack Yetiv was suffering? Or did it look like they were suffering? I'm no victim. The bigger picture is, this is a fight I've had with the city for three years, and they've been laughing in my face."

That's not to say that the matter of Dr. Jack Yetiv v. City of Houston doesn't have some significance beyond a winner's right to gloat. The day he filed suit against the city, Yetiv became part of an unusual alliance of social activists, gadflies and advocates for the disenfranchised who, for various reasons, had something riding on the case. Since August 21, each has found some measure of vindication in the verdict.

Those who want more public dollars dedicated toward affordable housing -- such as the local Citizens Housing Coalition -- hope the jury's decision will slow the demolition of existing low-income units that has increased in the wake of CURB. At the same time, the civil libertarians of the Houston Property Rights Association, whose members staunchly oppose most taxpayer-funded programs, are celebrating Jefferson's ruling on the building-standard regulations.

HPRA president Barry Klein attended each day of the trial, sitting alongside David Kahan, an attorney from the Clark Read Civil Liberties Foundation, whose clientele is overwhelmingly poor, black or Hispanic and on some sort of public assistance.

On the surface, Yetiv has little in common with any of those people or their agendas. For one thing, he is a wealthy businessman from California. He made his first real estate investment in Houston after meeting a broker from Texas on a Utah ski slope in 1989. He now owns three apartment complexes in Spring Branch and part of another in Midland. Most of Yetiv's time is spent in the San Diego area, where he lives comfortably, drives a Porsche and is seemingly far removed from the effects of either government neglect or restraint.

For another, while he provides affordable apartment units to the working poor, Yetiv doesn't believe in tax-supported housing; his three complexes, totaling about 450 units, do not accept federally subsidized tenants.

Moreover, Yetiv is not exactly opposed to the CURB ordinance. When he bought his first property, Westview Court, he supported stricter building regulations. That position distinguished him from many other local apartment owners, who found that, absent any code enforcement by the city, they could increase their profits by neglecting to make repairs. It wasn't until the new ordinance was put in place and Yetiv was snared by its arcane language and selective enforcement that he became an outspoken critic of CURB.

"I'm certainly not here to apologize for irresponsible landlords," he said at a post-verdict City Hall press conference organized by representatives from the HPRA, the Citizens Housing Coalition and the local chapter of the Gray Panthers. "Without naming any names, I will say that there are apartment owners in this city who ought to be put out of business."

Nonetheless, Yetiv is being lionized by people who support property rights to the extreme. "All Hail Jack," crowed Klein's weekly HPRA newsletter following Jefferson's determination that portions of CURB were unconstitutional. Since the first public hearings on CURB in early 1993, Klein had warned that the new building code would eventually come back to bite taxpayers. It might rid neighborhoods of a few eyesores, he argued, but its draconian punitive measures -- huge fines, unreasonable deadlines for repair and, eventually, demolition -- would prove costly the day someone with the right combination of resources sued the city.

"I don't think there was so much the sense that, someday, a person like Jack would materialize," Klein says. "But it was going to take someone with the time, the money and the drive to make things right. I think property owners and low-income people got lucky when Jack came along. Most people would have just accepted their losses."

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