Nightmare on Pech Road

Jack Yetiv was, at one time, that rarest of creatures: a Spring Branch landlord in good standing. While the area's rundown, low-income apartment units were being demolished and replaced by swanky red-brick Georgians, Yetiv became a poster child for what city officials called the "responsible" renovation of dangerous buildings.

In May, Yetiv, accompanied by Councilwoman Helen Huey, showed a local television crew around Aspenwood Apartments, a dilapidated complex he planned to renovate. In August, Huey herself posed for a Press photographer at a yet-to-be-restored unit at the complex, crouching amid the squalor in a snappy tricolor ensemble accented by a pair of black-and-white pumps. The councilwoman's message was that even she -- a woman who has been called a human wrecking ball because of her campaign to rid Houston of dangerous buildings -- supports rehabilitation by upstanding property owners like Jack Yetiv.

That was then. Today, the future of Aspenwood is in jeopardy while Yetiv and the city threaten to take each other into court. The city says that, since April, when he bought the apartments, Yetiv has been doing his rehabilitation without the proper plans and permits. In late October, building inspectors visited Aspenwood and issued about two dozen Municipal Court citations to Yetiv. Two weeks ago, City Council authorized the city attorney's office to file suit against the owner for various building code violations.

"What I'm told is that when it came time to pay for the permits, to submit the plans and submit to the inspections, he refused to do that," says Tim Austin, an assistant city attorney.

Yetiv says the claim that he won't spend $300 for permits after sinking an estimated $200,000 into rehabilitation is absurd. He insists that he has bent over backward to show good faith in his repair efforts and that, despite not having permits, he has not tried to hide any of the work done on Aspenwood. He also says that he tried numerous times to get permits, only to be told that because Aspenwood was a dangerous building he would require special approval from the city's Neighborhood Protection Division -- which, he discovered, was a complicated and demanding condition.

Now, as far as Yetiv is concerned, the city can keep its permits. He has agreed to stop work on the apartments while he awaits his day in court. Once there, he hopes to show that the renovation efforts by him and other owners of dangerous buildings are being stymied by an out-of-control bureaucracy that makes up its rules as it goes along.

"You just don't know what they want from you," he says. "Even if what they're asking for is not in the building codes, we'd have no problem with their demands if it was standard policy. But it's not -- it's different things for different people. If they want something torn down, all they need to do is keep putting up the obstacles until it becomes impossible to do the work."

Back in April, there appeared to be no reason to suspect things would go so wrong. Yetiv, who owns two other low-income apartment buildings in Spring Branch, says he told Huey in mid-1993 that he was in the market for another complex. She recommended the property at 2121 Pech Road, then known as Gardenview, a good percentage of which was declared dangerous in November 1993.

Yetiv agreed to buy the complex only after meeting with Bea Link, the assistant director of the Neighborhood Protection Division, which oversees dangerous buildings. Yetiv and Link agree that the meeting went well, with both sides pledging to work together to make 2121 Pech -- which Yetiv renamed Aspenwood -- a nice place for low-income people to live.

But they fail to agree on anything that has happened since. Yetiv, in fact, has come to distrust the city so much that he follows up every contact with city officials with a letter to Link. His dealings with the city, while perhaps not quite the "Kafkaesque" experience his attorney describes, certainly reflect a frustrating process that would discourage most people from going to the trouble of repairing a dangerous building in Houston.

Link's early demands of Yetiv were simple: submit a "cure plan" outlining the work to be done and a time frame for its completion; file an application to extend the dangerous building order, which was due to expire on June 23, and get the proper building permits.

Yetiv filed for the extension before he even closed on the deal to buy the complex. A day or so later, he submitted a plan, only to have it rejected by Link. A month later, Yetiv submitted another, modeled on the accepted plans submitted by a property owner who was about to complete a similar renovation.  

Link claims that Yetiv never submitted the proper plans. When told that the city's own records indicate that Yetiv's plans were accepted by the city on May 20, Link explains that what Yetiv submitted was "inadequate." What he should have done, she says, was get an occupancy inspection by Tony Balay, the chief building inspector.

But Yetiv says he wasn't told that until he submitted his plans and his extension application. And though such an inspection isn't normally required, according to the building code, until after construction, Yetiv agreed to the inspection when Link told him it would help determine what work he needed to do. Based on the outcome of the inspection, she explained, he could then submit a revised plan and extension request.

But when Yetiv met with Balay, the inspector told him that he would first have to go back to Link and have her remove the administrative hold her department had placed on the property. According to copies of numerous letters he faxed to Link, Yetiv tried for the next three weeks to get that approval, to no avail.

Link finally responded in early July, a week after the original dangerous building order had expired, when she again informed Yetiv that the rules had changed. Now, because the order was no longer valid, Yetiv had to post a $2,200 bond and sign an agreement locking him into a repair schedule. In a letter to Link, a confused Yetiv responded, "Since we have not had Mr. Balay's inspection, I cannot commit to a schedule .... If I understand your previous recommendation, once Mr. Balay has [inspected], I will be able to put together a reasonable cure plan that will conform with what the city wants us to do."

Yetiv also sent a copy of that letter to Huey, complaining that he was getting "a bit of a run-around!!" Apparently, getting Huey involved spurred Link to respond -- and, Yetiv believes, to anger. On August 10 -- four months after she pledged to work with Yetiv on the renovation -- she responded for the first time in writing. She reiterated what she'd already said: that Yetiv had to post a bond, schedule an inspection, submit a plan.

But she also noted that an August 4 inspection by Neighborhood Protection had found a number of violations, and she threatened Yetiv with daily fines until they were corrected. Tim Austin, the assistant city attorney, says that, by August, the city had become concerned with Yetiv's "substandard" work. "It's not simply an issue of not having permits, but building in violation of the code," he says. "Even if he had permits, he couldn't do what he's doing."

But Yetiv says that while inspectors had visited his property several times a month, they never documented their inspections nor left him any reports. When Yetiv asked Link for specifics about her department's inspection, he was given the name of two inspectors to call. One, he says, did not return five phone calls, and the other could provide no further information about the alleged violations. "To this day, I do not know what they are talking about," he says.

Asked for copies of the city's inspection reports, Austin responded that the city is treating its dispute with Yetiv as "a matter of litigation." Therefore, he says, inspection information is "not what we would consider public information."

Andrew McStay, Yetiv's attorney, says no one complained about the quality of the work until his client took his complaints about Link to Huey. "They went out and inspected a number of times over the summer and they never gave us any tickets, never told us to stop what we were doing," McStay says. "It only became a problem after he pissed Bea Link off."

Since then, Yetiv says, he has tried at least three times to get permits, only to be told there is still a hold on the property by Neighborhood Protection. Link says that she long ago gave Balay the go-ahead to proceed with the inspections, and that the problem lies with Yetiv. "He met with the building inspectors three months ago and he refused to take out permits," she says. "The only thing he needs to do is pay for them."

Yet as late as October, Yetiv was told by clerks in the building inspections office that they could not issue him permits. One even wrote out on a computer printout of the administrative hold on 2121 Pech, "Permits cannot be sold by this department."

By then, the dispute between Yetiv and the city had gone beyond reconciliation. On October 27, the city dispatched a dozen inspectors and three police cars to Aspenwood. Yetiv received nearly two dozen citations for offenses ranging from denying inspectors access to his property to failure to comply with a stop-work order -- which, Yetiv says, was issued only moments before he was cited for not complying with it.  

"They have taken very seriously the old saw that you can't fight City Hall," says McStay, who argues that nothing in the city building codes requires Yetiv to either post a bond or get a pre-construction occupancy inspection. "They think they can just bully and push people around, no matter what."

"If they'd let us be treated like the building code provides for us to be treated, we'd go down tomorrow, get a structural permit and start the work," McStay adds. "Then we'd schedule the inspections required under the code, and if we don't pass, they make us fix it. But the problem is that one department of the city has just decided they're going to make this guy suffer. For what? I don't know -- to break him, to bring him to heal, to keep him from causing trouble. Who knows?"

Such a showdown between the city and a property owner has been looming since last December, when the Huey-chaired Dangerous Buildings and Neighborhood Nuisances Committee reworked the city's building codes. The new Comprehensive Urban Rehabilitation and Minimum Building Standards Code, or CURB, stiffened the city's ability to enforce the dangerous building provisions. CURB also eliminated the avenue of appeal for property owners and created the Building and Standards Commission, a quasi-judicial body whose decisions can only be appealed at the district court level.

Critics have complained that the new law does little to encourage rehabilitation, but instead gives the city a capricious power to tear down any building it decides must go. Moreover, critics complain that the new ordinance is confusing and moves responsibility for its enforcement from trained building inspectors to Neighborhood Protection, which otherwise deals with complaints about junked cars and weeds.

"It was a law directed to slumlords and drug dealers, but everyone will have to be very careful," says Joan Denkler, a member of the Citizens Housing Coalition, a watchdog group that has criticized CURB. "It is a very severe law that is written so that it entangles people."

The feud between Yetiv and the city is further framed by a recent controversy involving Huey and the demolition of a Spring Branch apartment complex. In that case, Leonard and Betty Leath sued the city, claiming Huey pressured city inspectors to revoke their permits, leading to the building's demolition. Huey blamed the Leaths, saying they could have saved their building if they had only submitted the proper plans. At the trial, building inspectors testified that the Leaths had the wrong permits.

The Leaths were awarded $150,000 in an out-of-court settlement, which departing City Attorney Benjamin Hall III unsuccessfully tried to keep confidential. Hall justified the attempt by arguing that publicity would encourage "copycat" litigation from other property owners whose buildings have been torn down.

Yetiv, however, doesn't want to file a "copycat" lawsuit; he figures there are enough similarities between the Leath case and his own experience that he'd better challenge the city in court while Aspenwood is still standing.

But for now, he can only wonder about his sudden reversal of fortune. "Until April of this year, I had the support of Helen Huey on down," Yetiv says. "Everybody thought I was the best apartment complex owner in Spring Branch. Now, I don't even get invited to the Apartment Task Force meetings anymore.

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