CEDAR LAKE, Ind. (MCT) —A blind woman is facing eviction from her northwest Indiana home of 55 years after the land it sits on was bought at a tax sale for $43 without her knowledge.
"She got screwed on this bad," said Lake County Treasurer John Petalas.
The new owner has filed eviction papers in court and, in the meantime, is charging Dolores Pittman, 67, $300 to remain in the house in Cedar Lake, about 50 miles from Chicago. She has been paying that amount since May but it's a hardship, she said. Previously she had been paying $10 a year to the town to rent the land.
"If I had money, I'd just say to hell with it and go off someplace," said Pittman, a former librarian. An attorney is looking into the matter but has told her it doesn't look good.
Pittman said she moved into the home with her parents when she was 12.
"It was four days before Christmas and my little brother was 4. And we moved in during a snowstorm and the first thing I put up was the Christmas tree because it was important that Santa knew where to come," Pittman said. "It was security that we had a house. My mother said she just wanted a house that she knew she could die in."
At first, her parents rented the home from a church, the Lake Region Christian Assembly, which used the land as a retreat. The home — but not the land — was sold to her family for about $16,000 in the late 1970s or early 1980s, she said. The family paid a $10 annual rental fee to the town of Cedar Lake, who they believed had acquired the property from the church, she said.
But over the years, the church claimed to still own the property. The church did not pay property taxes.
"[The church] just didn't pay the taxes, I never got a notice," she said. "All the time they (the town) were saying they owned the property. I was paying rent to the town."
Pittman said she was never told that the dispute was eventually settled in the church's favor, and she continued paying the $10 to the town. "I was still paying rent. . .They were cashing my checks. It's like breach of contract. We signed contracts with them to continue paying the $10 rental each year but they couldn't bother with say, 'Oh, we don't own that.' "
About three years ago, the land was sold at a tax sale for $43. Pittman said she was never notified by officials.
Petalas, the Lake County treasurer, said the church had conveyed land to the town but not — it turned out — the property underneath the home. "The land underneath the home was still owned by the church."
Until 2005, the church was not responsible for paying property taxes because it had a non-for-profit status, he said. Then changes in state law removed such status from vacant property and the church was issued tax bills, he said. But the church never paid them.
"So in 2009, the land went to a county commissioner sale and [it was bought]," Petalas said. "They (the church) just ignored it. They never called the county to say, 'Hey, we don't want this property' or at the very least, they never called this lady."
Cedar Lake's town manager Ian Nicolini could not explain why the town still collected a rental fee from Pittman when it no longer laid claim to the property. He declined further comment on the tax sale, saying the town is being sued by the person who bought the land.
The owner could not be reached for comment.
Nicolini said officials have been working to "make the transition" comfortable for Pittman. He said they are also working to get her assistance.
Pittman said that, with her Social Security and pension checks, she receives a little more than $1,000 a month. She lives with her brother, who is a mechanic. An infection caused Pittman to start losing her sight about 30 years. She went completely blind about five years ago.
While she appreciates people who want to help her, Pittman said through tears that she doesn't want to leave her home: "I want to know, am I going to be in here on Christmas or am I going to be out?"
WGN-TV contributed to this story.
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