Jack's Big Payback

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

That, in essence, was the situation faced by Leonard and Betty Leath. In October 1990, the Oakland, California, couple bought a Spring Branch apartment complex to rehabilitate as housing for the elderly. The CURB ordi- nance was unheard of at the time, but the person responsible for its eventual passage into law -- Helen Huey -- took office as councilwoman for District A, which includes Spring Branch, in January 1992.

By that summer, the Leaths had sunk more than $200,000 into the complex and were well into their rehabilitation. Then the city suddenly revoked their building permits. The couple spent months haggling with building officials, to no avail. Finally, the Leaths ran out of money and had little choice but to demolish the complex. They sued, and the case went to trial in July 1994.

On the fifth day of testimony, the Leaths received incriminating documents that suggested Huey had ordered inspectors to revoke the permits -- an apparent violation of a clause in the city charter that prohibits councilmembers from assuming the administrative duties of city employees. The proceedings screeched to a halt, the jury was removed from the courtroom and, moments after Huey was inexplicably dismissed as a defendant, city attorneys offered the Leaths $110,000 in compensation and voided a $65,000 demolition lien placed on the property.

Though it appeared the Leaths had found a smoking gun of sorts, the couple's attorney urged them to accept the settlement and not risk further losses on the whim of a jury. Reluctantly, they did, though the award did not come close to covering the financial beating they took on the aborted venture.

Yetiv was not going to allow that to happen with his case. Even though his attorney, Andrew McStay, expressed doubts about Yetiv's damage claim, the apartment owner was unwilling to settle for anything less than he thought he deserved -- even if that meant risking everything at the hands of a jury.

"Most attorneys are incompetent," declares Yetiv, who says he fired McStay when he declined to work on a contingency-fee basis. "And very few attorneys -- I don't know of any, come to think of it -- are oriented toward a result as opposed to money. I didn't care. This was a full-time effort for three years, an almost pathological dedication. And when an average person of average intelligence has that kind of commitment, good things are going to happen."

Ironically, while Leonard and Betty Leath were preparing to sue the city, Helen Huey was singing the praises of Jack Yetiv, who owned and operated two other apartment complexes in Spring Branch that passed muster with the councilwoman.

Yetiv believes the councilwoman began to change her tune after residents of the neighboring subdivision complained to her office about Aspenwood. Huey had made no secret of her determination to rid once-placid Spring Branch of apartment complexes that sprang up in the area during the boom years. When the city's economy collapsed, those complexes had become home to thousands of immigrants and working-class Hispanic families.

Some of her more rabid critics have accused Huey of trying to return Spring Branch to the 1960s and contend that her agenda is, essentially, a sort of localized ethnic cleansing.

Yetiv, however, won't go that far.
"I've never said she's a racist, and I don't think I ever will," Yetiv says. "But that's not to say she hasn't worked towards removing certain people from her district on behalf of her constituents. They're the racists, and she just wants to get elected. So, she does their bidding."

In early 1994, when Yetiv first toured the Gardenview Apartments at the corner of Pech and Vogue in Spring Branch, the complex had very little to recommend itself to a potential buyer. The previous owner had filed for bankruptcy, and six of the complex's nine buildings had been classified as dangerous by the city's Building and Standards Commission in December 1993.

Yetiv found holes in the roofs and collapsed walls and sewer lines. Hooligans and drug dealers had broken most of the exterior lighting. The sidewalks and driveways were pocked and lined with trash, and numerous vehicles had been abandoned in the parking lot. Fewer than half the 210 units were occupied and generating revenue.

But Yetiv considered himself a responsible landlord, one who would spend what was necessary to bring a place up to his standards. In return, he asked only that tenants pay the rent and respect the property. So far, it's been a formula for success.

Yetiv bought Gardenview, which he renamed Aspenwood, after receiving assurances from Neighborhood Protection's Bea Link that the city would help him get the proper building permits as quickly as possible. Yetiv was also assured he had Huey's support. Indeed, shortly after Yetiv bought the complex, Huey lauded his "continued commitment" to Westview Court and his other Spring Branch property, Park on Westview, in her Apartment Task Force newsletter.

But as the summer of 1994 progressed, Yetiv discovered that the path to the rehabilitation of Aspenwood was an obstacle course of red tape and conflicting promises. By October, he still did not have permits, and he and Link had developed a deep, mutual loathing. Still, Yetiv continued to work on the project, because, he says, Huey told him, "You don't have a problem."

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