(MCT) - A flow of prayers, offers of housing and promises of cash donations have started landing on the doorstep of Dolores Pittman, who is fighting to stay in the home where she has lived for more than 50 years.
The 67-year-old blind woman is being evicted from her two-bedroom house in Cedar Lake, Ind., by a man who bought the land underneath the house for $43 at a tax sale two years ago, a story that this week became national news. Then strangers started calling from around the country with offers of prayers, and in some cases offers for a new place where she and her three cats can live out their days.
First Midwest Bank has set up an account to receive donations in her name at any branch. Township aid officials have vowed to find her housing she can afford on her $1,000 monthly income from Social Security and a tiny pension.
"A man from Florida called and talked to me for 20 minutes," Pittman said. "Everyone has been very nice."
Pittman can remember her first night in her tiny house. As her parents unpacked amid a snowstorm on Dec. 21, 1958, the first item out of the boxes was the Christmas tree, because her younger brother was worried to tears that Santa would not be able to find their new house.
The former librarian is fairly sure that her last night in the home will come soon, as she seems to have lost the eviction battle with the man who bought the land under the house - but not the house itself. Pittman hopes she will get to stay at least one more Christmas.
"My lawyer says it probably won't come before then, because the judge hasn't sent me my formal letter yet and the sheriff around here doesn't like to do evictions in December," Pittman said Friday.
Pittman has always relied on the kindness of folks in her hometown. Her vision began deteriorating in her 30s, after she suffered a ruptured appendix and a lingering infection that damaged her retinas. She had to give up her job at the town library when she could no longer read the file cards.
For years she has been completely blind, and her life has been a tiny orbit around her home. She knows the number of paces to the local museum where she volunteers. She can navigate the park behind her house. She has friends who take her to church, read her mail and help her pay her bills.
In February, her mail carrier asked her to sign for a certified letter, then opened it and read it to her.
"But it was like you could hear it in her voice, that she knew it was bad news," Pittman said.
Reading the former librarian's mail in the months since was the saddest job in the small northwest Indiana town, which takes its name from the lake just a few dozen yards from Pittman's house.
The flurry of past-due bills and legal notices are a constant worry for Pittman, who prided herself on keeping up with her modest expenses until she had to hire lawyers and pay $300 a month in rent to the new owner of the land under her house while her court case is pending.
Sunday, a friend burst into tears as she went through Pittman's mail. Her lawyer had sent a letter to say that prospects for her case were not good.
Pittman and many other longtime Cedar Lake residents have in recent years seen something of a real estate boom in the small town about an hour southeast of Chicago.
Well-heeled investors have bought up lakefront property and replaced former vacation homes with mansions. A few years ago, the dirt road in front of Pittman's house was paved and a restaurant sprang up on the shoreline.
Pittman assumes Clayton Pullins, the Porter County, Ind., man who bought the land at the tax sale, figured he would cash in. She has never spoken to Pullins and doesn't know if he knew her house was on the lot when he bought it.
Pullins and his attorney did not return calls Friday.
For decades, the 1.3-square-mile lake was ringed with resort homes, and several "conference grounds" owned by religious organizations, which would extend leases on land for congregation members who wanted to build on the parcels.
Pittman's family rented from the same landlord, Lake Region Christian Assembly, for years. When Pittman and her mother bought the house on land contract for $16,000, they continued the landlord's agreement to pay $10 per year to the church.
When the church sold the land to the town of Cedar Lake in the 1970s to build the park and a government complex, the Pittmans made their $10 payments to the town. But the parcel under the Pittman house was never sold to the town, and no deed for the land was ever recorded. The village has offered to refund her $1,400 in rent it was apparently not entitled to collect plus interest, but Pittman has declined to accept the money while her case is pending.
In 2005, changes to Indiana tax laws meant the church would start getting tax bills on the land, but it appears the church ignored them, as well as notices that the parcel was going to be sold at the tax sale, Lake County Treasurer John Petalas said.
Pittman, who was also paying the taxes on her house, did not receive any notification about the tax sale, Petalas said. The back taxes on the land, according to the treasurer's office, totaled $1,269, but the property didn't sell until it was put on the county commissioners' tax auction in 2010, where Pullins paid $43.
Pittman's situation is not unique in Cedar Lake, where the leases for homes on former church property were common, and each parcel would have a separate tax bill for the land owner and one for the owner of the home on the land, said John Dull, attorney for the Lake County Board of Commissioners.
Dull declined to comment on how ownership disputes similar to the one between Pittman and Pullins have been resolved. Pittman holds out hope that she will be able to stay in the house where she was raised, lived with her parents, and raised her own children and a granddaughter who is now in college.
More likely, she acknowledges, sometime in the new year she will have to find somewhere else to live. Several people have made offers, and the head of the township's poor relief office has promised to find her housing. So far, no offer has compared with the modest house where she has spent most of her life.
"I haven't planned financially for this. My mother and I, we wanted something we'd be able to afford until we could no longer work, a place you could live until you died or got Alzheimer's," she said.
"I worked until I lost my sight; my mother worked 30 years in a hospital. We worked for what we got. You think you're secure, a place you can live until you died, and then it gets pulled out from under you."
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