Frederick native Sherri Dotson was familiar with city landlord Duk Hee Ro and the ongoing issues related to the dilapidated, blighted buildings Ro owned throughout downtown.
She also knew that Ro offered cheap, or even free, apartments to tenants in those buildings — something she and her husband, Joseph Dotson, a convicted felon whose criminal record of multiple drug possession and distribution charges ruled out many other housing options, needed badly.
“We were homeless people. We had nowhere else to go,” Sherri Dotson recalled. “If we weren’t homeless people, we wouldn’t have messed with her.”
Still, conditions at the home on 111 E. Seventh St. — owned by Ro’s holding company Julia & James Properties LLC — were worse than she anticipated. Dotson described piles of filth, clothes and heroin needles when they moved in last fall.
They relied on electric heaters to keep warm in the winter, since the house had no heating system. Bare bulbs and live wires dangled from walls and ceilings. They paid for electricity.
But they didn’t pay rent, apart from a $250 security deposit, instead working on the property and others owned by Ro in exchange for a place to live. There was never a lease, they said, or any type of written documentation on the terms of their agreement.
It was still better than the alternative of staying in a shelter, at least at first, said Sherri Dotson. Then Ro stopped paying the city water bills for the property.
For water and plumbing needs, Dotson and her husband then turned to local shelters and public bathrooms, and brought in bottled water. But plumbing problems at the property caused a steady stream of waste and sewage to flood the basement.
By July, they had saved enough money through their jobs — he at Wolf Furniture and she at a local cleaning company — to leave the Seventh Street property behind and start a one-year lease for a West Sixth Street home, a copy of which was provided to The News-Post.
Roughly a dozen phone messages to Ro requesting comment, along with a certified letter sent to her home, were not returned.
Making the call
Vicki Brust has watched a slew of tenants come and go from the Ro property across from her Seventh Street home. But she had never entered the home until the Dotsons lived there. Unlike with many prior inhabitants, Brust said, she was friendly with the couple, who invited her in once to see the squalid conditions they described.
“I got as far as the living room,” Brust recalled, describing a bare bulb and wire dangling from the ceiling. “Just what I saw was enough to scare me. I couldn’t imagine what the rest of the inside was like.”
Based on her observations, and what the Dotsons told her about their living situation, she encouraged them to report the property to the city after they moved out. With Brust’s convincing, Sherri Dotson said, she called a friend within the city’s code enforcement department.
That call prompted an inspection of the property, which from the outside appeared to be up to code, but inside revealed numerous violations, according to Brittany Parks, assistant manager of code enforcement. Violations ranged from rubbish and garbage surrounding the building, to plumbing issues, open junction boxes, a broken front window and missing heating system, Parks wrote in an email.
Parks declined to provide additional description of the violations and general property condition on the grounds that specific case files could only be shared through a Maryland Public Information Act request. The News-Post filed the records request Oct. 13 and had not received the information as of Friday afternoon.
The department issued notice for seven new violations on the property on Sept. 10, triggering a roughly one-month window for Ro to bring the property up to code, or else be fined $400 per outstanding violation, Parks wrote in an email. As of Oct. 13, the necessary repairs were made and no fines given, Parks wrote.
History of problems
The recent violations are not the first issued for the Seventh Street property. The home was identified as one of 30 on the city’s blighted property and property watch list created in June 2014. Prior violations had been fixed, however, and the property was slated for removal from the list next month until the new violations were found.
With those recent violations corrected, the one-year review process will start anew, with continued site inspections to ensure that no additional violations arise before the property can be taken off the blight list.
Sherri Dotson said she was skeptical, though, that the corrected violations translate to a livable property for future tenants.
“She brings it up to code, but that doesn’t mean everything’s fixed,” Joseph Dotson agreed.
Brust said the property has been a source of noise and police calls for as long as she could remember. Activity has died down there recently, but Brust described loud screaming matches between Ro and prior tenants in previous years.
Call records to the Frederick Police Department for issues at that address, provided to The News-Post through a Public Information Act request, show one call made in 2015, dated April 25. By comparison, the department received 26 calls for service to that address between January 2013 and December 2014.
“I’ve probably made most of them,” Brust said of the calls.
The building itself has been an eyesore on the neighborhood, and in various stages of decay, since neighbor David Hunter purchased his 109 E. Seventh St. home in 2000.
“I don’t think it’s really gotten significantly better,” Hunter said of the property’s appearance.
Although he acknowledged that city officials and code enforcement inspectors had pursued avenues to address the issues, he said the city’s response was overall “pretty lame.”
“It’s amazing to me she’s allowed to keep the property,” he said.
As for the Dotsons, they’re hoping to never interact with Ro again, even if it means never receiving the $250 security deposit back.
“I just want to leave her alone,” Joseph Dotson said.