YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Returning to His Home Sweet Home

Inglewood man gets back the condo he lost in a tax bill mix-up.

September 10, 2003|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

They say you can never go home again. Terrell Dotson proved them wrong.

More than a year after Los Angeles County sold the 86-year-old's home to pay a $546 property tax bill that Dotson didn't know he owed, he is once again living in his Inglewood condominium. Once again his name is on the deed.

"It's just such a pleasure to be able to come home again," Dotson said, as he sat eating Chinese food on the patio of his condo as painters completed their redecorating work. The retired factory worker and World War II veteran plans to move in today. Returning Dotson's one-bedroom condo to him required no less than a lawsuit and help from the tax collector, a county supervisor and an attorney, as well as the contributions of concerned citizens.

Dotson's story, first reported in The Times in February, drew widespread attention and prompted other homeowners to call county officials and say they, too, almost lost their homes because of taxes they never knew they owed.

Within days, 20 homes scheduled for auction were pulled from the sale until the county could determine whether the owners, who appeared on property records for decades, were like Dotson -- elderly and perhaps unaware of their tax obligation.

Dotson's plight eventually triggered improvements in the way the county notifies property owners who are behind on their taxes, illustrating that "when a person is victimized, the situation can be turned around," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke.

Among Dotson's new-found friends is Reuben Taylor, of the Inglewood Police Department.

"Sometimes things do work out for the best," said Taylor, who is helping Dotson refurnish the condo. "By God's grace, we were able to get justice for Mr. Dotson."

That's all Dotson ever wanted. He did not set out to change the system. Yet, Dotson's ordeal resonated with anyone who has ever struggled to become a property owner, or been baffled by a property tax bill.

Dotson, single and with no children, purchased his home in 1995 with $92,500 in cash and paid his taxes each year, in person. But a few months after he purchased the home, the second installment of the annual tax bill became due. The original bill had been sent out in October in the previous owner's name. According to county records, Dotson did not pay the bill.

Taxpayers have five years to pay a delinquent bill before the property is offered for sale. The problem, said Dotson and his supporters, is that nobody explained that to him. He continued paying his current tax bills, never knowing that the clock was ticking.

A small box printed on Dotson's property tax bill warned that back taxes were due. It did not list an amount and, Dotson's advocates would later say, was easy to miss. Dotson, thinking he was current, also missed two other warnings that back taxes were due.

So, when his condo was auctioned for $81,000 and he was forced to leave his home, Dotson was confused.

"When you get thrown out [of] your house and you don't know why you got thrown out, that's a miserable feeling," he said.

Homeless and suffering from diabetes and cancer, Dotson ended up at the Inglewood Police Department and in the office of the Los Angeles NAACP. Neither dismissed his tale as the ramblings of an old man. Separately, both began trying to help.

Taylor and the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People's Vacie Thomas argued that Dotson's history of paying his taxes, and the fact that he owned his home outright, should have indicated that he was not a scofflaw, but perhaps an older person who needed help.

The two contacted the county's tax collector's office and the office of Supervisor Burke. Eventually, the tax collector's office agreed to rescind the sale, which was legal, and return the property to Dotson.

But Dotson needed the cooperation of the condo's new owner, Rosalio Granados, and Granados refused.

U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Harry Pregerson offered Dotson a room in an Inglewood facility for homeless veterans, which Dotson accepted. Burke's office stepped up its efforts to assist.

Then there was the response from the public.

Some people gave $5. Some Orange County residents raised $11,000 and, in the office of the NAACP, presented the money to Dotson for housing and furniture. Other donors, who wished to remain anonymous, also helped.

"I was really surprised by the outpouring we received," Thomas said. "There were a variety of individuals who were concerned and wanted to assist in any way they could."

Dotson saw it all as a gift from God.

"I appreciate every thing, every idea, every gift the public has donated," he said. "I feel the Lord has blessed me. I feel extremely grateful."

Los Angeles Times Articles