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."

"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."

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."

Yetiv suspected otherwise. City inspectors from Link's office made repeated visits to Aspenwood and were hassling the apartment owner over the work he was having performed without permits. In the fall of 1994, Yetiv made several visits to the City Hall annex, where he first pleaded with Council to settle the dispute with Link. When it was apparent that Council wasn't inclined to take his side, he returned to launch windy, pompous attacks on Huey and the CURB ordinance, and to demand that Link -- whom he called a "liar" -- be fired.

Link responded with a damning assessment for Council that branded Yetiv a loose cannon who wouldn't follow the rules. In November of '94, councilmembers unanimously voted to sue Yetiv for doing repair work without permits.

Around that time, an attorney for Leonard and Betty Leath pulled Yetiv aside and gave him a rundown of his clients' troubles with the city. Yetiv was outraged by what he heard -- particularly the attempt by then-City Attorney Benjamin Hall to settle the case without receiving the mandatory City Council approval, which was generally seen, even by a few other councilmembers, as a thinly veiled attempt to shield Huey from further scrutiny of her involvement.

In late 1994, confident he could prove a pattern of deceit and bureaucratic meddling in the rights of property owners, Yetiv filed a countersuit. He charged the city with retaliating against him for his public comments, a violation of his First Amendment right to freedom of speech. Yetiv also claimed the city's October 27, 1994 "raid" infringed on his Fourth Amendment guarantee against unreasonable search and seizure. His lawsuit sought more than $1 million in compensation for lost rents and expenses associated with delays caused by the city's withholding of building permits.

Yetiv also wanted an additional $1 million in punitive damages, but Jefferson tossed out that claim, presumably because Aspenwood is still standing. In a shrewd decision that in this litigious age is difficult to comprehend, and which may have lent Yetiv a credibility that money couldn't buy, the apartment owner made a decision not to seek damages for pain and suffering.

"The reality is," Yetiv said later, "if I thought I could have proved pain and suffering I would have gone after it. But there's no way the jury would have looked upon me as a victim."

That may be so, but Yetiv sure made a case that city officials -- including Huey -- were aggressively trying to make his life miserable.

In January 1995, state District Judge Harriet O'Neill signed an order compelling the city to grant Yetiv the permits he needed. That kept the peace until October of that year, when those permits expired. Despite continued promises from the city, Yetiv once again had to take the matter to court, where in April 1996, District Judge Don Wittig gave a verbal order to renew the permits. For the next several months, Yetiv continued his rehabilitation of Aspenwood while maintaining an uneasy coexistence with city inspectors.

Then on December 4, 1996, an inspector from Neighborhood Protection appeared at Aspenwood with orders to give the entire complex a thorough going over. Yetiv was naturally suspicious and, after asking a few questions, refused to allow the inspector onto his property. The next day, he filed a motion in district court, seeking to bar the city from inspecting Aspenwood without cause.

At a January 16 hearing on his motion, Yetiv asked the inspector what had brought her to Aspenwood that day.

"This was a general CURB ordinance complaint to investigate," she replied. "It was from Helen Huey's office."

After that testimony, Judge Dwight Jefferson granted Yetiv a temporary injunction to limit the access of city inspectors to Aspen-wood. But less than two weeks later, another inspector showed up at the complex, ostensibly in reference to a complaint about uncovered trash cans. An incredulous Yetiv again dragged the city to court, where the inspector admitted that an uncovered trash can was not a violation of the building code. Jefferson issued a second injunction barring city inspectors from entering the property without a specific complaint.

Incredibly, an inspector from the fire department came to Aspenwood on April 17, allegedly at the behest of the local civic association. The following day, Yetiv filed a motion seeking sanctions against the city. Jefferson found the city in contempt of court and levied a $1,000 fine for violating the injunction. In an attempt to put an end to the obvious harassment, the judge ordered city officials to petition his court for approval before making any more visits to Aspenwood.

He also put city attorneys on notice that they should prepare for trial.
"The Court is of the opinion that Yetiv has a probable right of recovery on the merits of this case," the judge wrote in his order.

Up to that point, it was obvious the city had underestimated Jack Yetiv. That's understandable. The law is largely a matter of common sense, but when it comes to arguing it, precision counts. Exacting testimony from witnesses and presenting evidence can be an adventurous experience for a seasoned attorney, let alone someone like Yetiv, who says he had never been inside a courtroom before this lawsuit.

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.

Many people think Jack Yetiv has accomplished a great deal already, but there's one piece of unfinished business he's anxious to pursue: Jefferson's dismissal of Helen Huey as a defendant.

Yetiv is confident the judge's ruling will be reversed, and he's already looking forward to his next day in court.

"I know I can show her interference, her role in some phase of the demolition of a whole bunch of apartment units," he says. "I can't put her hand on the sledgehammer, but she did that.

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