Jack's Big Payback

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

It took much longer than necessary, and it was often mind-numbingly dull. But Yetiv managed to get everything out in the open -- and then some. He called 39 witnesses and entered 152 exhibits into evidence. His case took two weeks to present, largely because the city's attorneys -- Kevin Aiman and Tanya Wilder -- objected to nearly every question he asked and every piece of evidence he entered.

But Jefferson gave Yetiv a wide berth to present his case, though at times he seemed ready to join the jury in a nap. To his credit, Yetiv kept a lid on his impetuous temper and, though it must have nearly killed him, he wasn't afraid to play dumb when it came to protocol. He courted judge and jury with an obsequious politeness that countered his grating know-it-allness, which the city had hoped to exploit into an unsympathetic portrayal of a man who could afford to take six months off his job to seek revenge.

Most of the time, though, it was the city attorneys who came off as tedious, and, inevitably, their steady barrage of objections made them sound desperate.

At Yetiv's request, the Leaths came to Houston, at their own expense, even though no one knew if Jefferson would even allow them to testify. Aiman and Wilder objected to the couple's appearance before the jury, arguing -- unconvincingly -- that their case had nothing to do with Yetiv's.

"What's the difference?" Jefferson asked.
"The Leaths' property was demolished," Wilder replied, too excitedly, like the answer had just popped into her head. "That's the difference, your honor. In Dr. Yetiv's case, there was no demolition."

"Well," Jefferson replied incredulously, "maybe there was no demolition because Dr. Yetiv came down here and filed a lawsuit and would not allow his property to be demolished."

Yetiv spent nearly an entire day drilling Link, and the questioning was often brutal. A dozen times, Wilder jumped from her seat to offer some variation on, "Your honor, I object -- this is pure harassment of this witness."

For the most part, however, Jefferson left the plaintiff and his witness free to go at each other -- though it was Yetiv who scored most often. Link, who is not known to shy away from confrontation, often appeared cowed by Yetiv, who was successful in drawing a number of contradictory statements from her.

Most significant of Link's slip-ups came during a discussion of the October 1994 "raid" on Aspenwood. Link insisted she knew nothing about what she called the "mass inspection" until her employees returned to the office later that morning. Yetiv kept on her, and eventually she contradicted her testimony by saying she had warned her crew to "make sure they followed proper procedure."

"I thought you just said you didn't know anything about the raid until afterward," Yetiv immediately shot back.

Link didn't reply.

By the third day of jury deliberations, even the city's attorneys knew their client had lost. Sure, anything could happen -- there was tons of evidence to review, lots of witness testimony to consider. But when the jury sent out a question to Jefferson about a possible conflict in damage claims, the only thing left unanswered was how much money Jack Yetiv would win.

Following the verdict, Yetiv and his supporters were quick to point that Huey was a defendant -- at least for awhile -- in two property-rights lawsuits that, to date, have cost the city more than $500,000. That total could increase soon: Yetiv is awaiting Jefferson's ruling on his motion to collect about $390,000 in legal fees for himself and Briscoe Swan, who represented Yetiv's company, the Aspenwood Apartment Corporation.

David Kahan, the attorney for the Clark Read Civil Liberties Foundation, is amazed at Yetiv's victory -- and angry that the whole affair has cost taxpayers.

"The problem with all of this is that in 1993 and '94, there were 40 or 50 legitimate citizen and church groups that came together and said, 'CURB is going to be a problem,' " Kahan said. "People spent an immense amount of time studying this thing, and they were ignored. Jack Yetiv went to City Council and said, 'I'm having real problems, all I want is my permits.' What did they do? They sued him, and that's wrong."

The court battle seems particularly senseless today, in light of the condition of Aspenwood Apartment Homes. While the complex is no one's idea of paradise, it does seem to offer decent, safe homes for renters of modest means. On a recent holiday weekend, it was quiet. There was no trash, no abandoned cars, no groups of vagabonds digging through the Dumpsters or drinking in the parking lot.

The rehabilitation work Yetiv began three years ago is almost complete. He figures he's spent about $1.5 million so far, and has funneled another $500,000 in revenues from rental payments back into the project. All 210 units should be available for renting by Thanksgiving, he says. At the back end of the complex, work continues on a game room and patio area. If there's room, Yetiv wants to dedicate space for a daycare center.

Sitting in his office, comfortable in his standard, non-courtroom attire of shorts and a T-shirt, Yetiv is glad to be back in the apartment business -- for now.

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