Philly courts halt sheriff sales after outcry over abrupt shift to online platform

The move to virtual sales raised fears from housing advocates about speculation and questions about the cost of moving to a private online platform.

Rochelle Bilal looks out a window

Philadelphia Sheriff Rochelle Bilal. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Philadelphia courts have ordered a moratorium on Sheriff Sales until September, following weeks of outcry over a sudden switch to online sales and subsequent critique from City Council.

The office resumed sales after a one-year hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic and when it restarted sales, it followed the lead of a number of counties that had outsourced sheriff sales to an online auction company known as Bid4Assets.

The move to virtual sales raised fears from housing advocates and vulnerable homeowners over a rise in out-of-state speculators, and questions about how the out-of-state company had quickly landed a lucrative contract to manage sales without a standard request for proposals.

On Thursday, a week after a City Council hearing on the issue, a flurry of activity ensued. As City Council member Cherelle Parker prepared to introduce a resolution calling for the suspension of sales at a Thursday council session, she revealed that Sheriff Rochelle Bilal had issued a letter stating that her office would voluntarily halt the auctions for two months.

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“A communication was sent from the Sheriff’s Office at about 9:30 today,” Parker said. “Sixty days of relief have been provided.”

But just hours later, President Judge Idee Fox of the Court of Common Pleas issued an order calling for a halt to all sales through September. Fox’s order also says additional information will be released to set forth a “process and procedure to assist homeowners in finding available resources to access funding to assist in payment of the debt and/or tax” within 30 days.

Initially, Tariq El-Shabazz, a defense attorney turned counsel for the sheriff, presented in hearings that the office could not independently suspend sales without legal reason.

But in a Wednesday letter cosigned by 12 council members, Parker’s office later asked President Judge Idee Fox of the Court of Common Pleas, to intervene and halt sales, citing a state request for $350 million in housing relief funds in the federal American Rescue Plan that could potentially forestall foreclosures.

On Thursday, Bilal sent her own letter to the judge, indicating her office would voluntarily suspend sales and similarly citing the federal relief package.

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“Homeowners in financial distress who meet certain criteria will be able to receive financial assistance,” Bilal wrote. “Due to this new information, I believe it is in the public’s best interest for the court to postpone Sheriff Sales.”

Later, Bilal reiterated her past defense of her office’s actions. She maintains that the office had been ordered by courts to resume sales and could not halt them without firmer legal standing provided by the request for housing relief funds and additional meetings with housing advocates.

“Despite numerous entreaties from well-meaning individuals, both elected and not, to postpone the sales because of largely unfounded claims and rumors about online Sheriff Sales, I could not petition the court to do so without a viable legal foundation,” Bilal wrote.

But tensions seem to remain between the sheriff and City Council.

At the Thursday session, Parker separately introduced a now largely symbolic resolution calling on the sheriff to temporarily stay all mortgage and tax foreclosure sales. And she indicated she could seek additional delays down the road.

“If in 60 days there are still homeowners … that haven’t made it through the process, we will be coming back and asking for another extension,” Parker said.

This story has been updated.

  18 of 2021 – Mortgage Sale Moratorium Draft 4.29.21.Final by Ryan Briggs on Scribd

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