Philly Council calls for hearings after sudden switch to online sheriff sales

Philly rowhouses

Rowhouses are seen Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015, in Philadelphia. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

Philadelphia City Council members are calling for hearings over a decision to move sheriff sales to a completely virtual system.

Councilmember Cherelle Parker’s office indicated it will introduce a resolution next week calling for hearings examining the move from live auctions of distressed real estate held in West Philadelphia and officiated by the Sheriff’s Office to online bidding, handled by a third-party auction company called Bid4Assets.com.

The legislation cites reporting by PlanPhilly earlier this month on the changeover, slated to occur when the sales resume after a year-long hold instituted to protect property owners during the coronavirus pandemic.

“For many Council members and their staff, this was the first time that they learned that sheriff sales would resume on April 6th and that they would be virtual,” Parker’s resolution says, referring to that article.

Parker’s resolution calls on Council’s Committee on Law & Government to hold hearings examining the arrangement.

The move to online auctions coincides with the overall resumption of sales of tax delinquent and foreclosed properties on April 6.

Sheriff Rochelle Bilal has said that the move to online sales will save the Sheriff’s Office $17,000 a month by eliminating rental costs, employee lunches, and other operational costs linked to in-person bidding.

“The move to virtual will be permanent, based on cost savings alone,” Bilal said during a virtual press briefing on Monday.

But some housing advocates echoed Parker’s surprise at the decision to permanently move all bidding online — something never before attempted in Philly.

Housing attorney Kate Dugan, from legal aid group Community Legal Services, fears the new system could encourage out-of-town real estate speculation. She said Bilal’s office also hasn’t made it clear how certain homeowner protections would be enforced.

“CLS definitely supports Council’s call for hearings, even as we get more details about how sales go,” Dugan said. “Our earlier concerns remain, and it would be good to have more transparency.”

Bid4Assets derives income off of “buyers premium” levied upon the final sale price of properties.

“There will never be a cost to the county or taxpayers,” Bid4Assets CEO Jesse Loomis said during the press event.

Bilal also repeatedly emphasized that none of the hundreds of properties slated for next month are occupied.

“The only properties going up for sale on April 6 are vacant,” she said.

But CLS attorneys said that they actively are representing multiple clients living in homes slated for foreclosure sales.

“The sheriff stated several times that no owner-occupied homes are going up for auction. That’s not true,” Dugan said. “We are concerned about owner-occupants hearing that and assuming their home won’t be sold and out-of-town buyers hearing that and thinking they’re not bidding on an occupied home.”

Although the federal government has levied a moratorium on foreclosures of properties with federally backed mortgages, other properties are fair game.

Greg Salisbury, a spokesperson for the sheriff, said that his office had been told by the courts that none of the properties set for auction were occupied and that his office was “following up” on information to the contrary.

David Slaughter, who owns and resides in a home his family has owned in Fishtown for more than 30 years, said he was notified earlier this month that the property was being moved to a foreclosure sale.

Slaughter, who is on disability, said he is now working with pro bono attorneys to stay that sale.

“They shouldn’t be able to kick people out of a house they’re living in,” he said.

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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