Forever Flophouse

A visit to Ralph Matthews' dingy, cluttered backyard is like stumbling onto an old set from Sanford & Son. You have to be nimble to negotiate your way around the busted, black '37 Ford, the scattered machine parts, the buckets and containers that are home to a family of stray cats. The yard of the Fort Lauderdale house, located in a modest residential neighborhood off Riverland Road and Davie Boulevard, leads to a four-car garage -- of which not a single square foot is dedicated to automobile storage. Rather, this is a gadget-crammed space where the remnants of what once were working motorcycles and other equipment are (or at least should be) administered last rites. In a tiny, jammed adjacent office, walls are decorated with fading posters of Farrah and Elvira.

"I admit I have a hard time throwing things away," says Matthews, 58, a former Army infantry sergeant and Vietnam veteran with a bristly Southern accent and direct, steely blue eyes. "I'd like to build a second floor over the garage so that there'd be room for more stuff."

But forget the garage clutter, Matthews says. The real nuisance is just beyond his backyard fence. Climb onto a couple of strategically placed cinder blocks and you'll see it there: Dave's Rooming House, a drab single-family home turned rooming house that has been owned since 1968 by Dave Romeo Lewis, a former business associate of Matthews'. It's the kind of place where rooms are rented by the week or the month, and it's well-known to the cops. Since 1977, police have been summoned to Dave's Rooming House 175 times for everything from assault and narcotics to robbery, stolen vehicles, and, curiously, loose farm animals. And, oh yes, last September, the naked body of a dead tenant, an alleged crack addict, was found sprawled across his bed in a locked room on the second floor.

Welcome to the bane of Matthews' existence.

"It's a cancer in the neighborhood," says Matthews, who for 25 years has been on a jihad to shut it down.

His primary concern is neighborhood pride, he insists, standing amid his beloved car parts and assorted junk. "Besides what it does to the property value, it's a life-safety issue," says Matthews, who lives with his wife, and two daughters, 7 and 9. "This is a family neighborhood, and that ugly, transient hotel subjects us to any drifter or pervert coming down off the turnpike... like the guy who kidnapped that girl in Utah. These scumbags sit in the yard every night, drinking beer and shouting profanities. I've had all kinds of fantasies about sticking a shotgun over the fence and cleaning them all out."

Counters Lewis, who once hired Matthews as a general contractor to build two duplexes: "He's been trying to irritate me for years and trying to close me down. I don't know what his problem is. It's like he's got nothing better to do."

The pair's business relationship has long since degenerated into enmity. After building the duplexes in the 1970s, Matthews bid on a third project but was turned down. "By that time, I'd already tried to close down the rooming house a few times," Matthews grouses. "That's probably why he didn't hire me."

Matthews admits that through the years, Dave's Rooming House has become something of, well, an obsession: He's devoted "hundreds" of painstaking hours to prove that, in addition to being a hazard, the place for years operated illegally, having used trumped-up documentation to get the proper zoning permit. He whips out a wad of business cards from Broward County and City of Fort Lauderdale zoning officials, all of whom he's contacted multiple times ("I know all their extensions and the best hours to reach them," he says. "I know where all the officials' secret little offices are"). He has gone to countless meetings -- anyone willing to listen is treated to a detailed, methodical presentation by Matthews, replete with stacks of photocopied depositions from neighbors and former tenants and affidavits dating back to the '80s.

He's even temporarily set aside his contracting business to better focus on his mission. And he's started to train, swimming three times a week so that physically he'll hold up better, he explains. "I've kind of put my life on hold in order to try and get this straightened out," Matthews says. "You've got to keep on top of these government people. Keep them on their toes."

Problem is, no decision-makers are really listening. Seems that no matter how many calls he makes, appointments he sets, or laps he swims, Matthews can't find an ally. "I know that when I walk into the zoning office, they're probably like, 'Oh, there's that ignorant ass again,'" he says.

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Felicia Levine