A day after both the Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office and the City Council asked the courts to postpone sheriff’s sales of distressed properties, Idee Fox, president judge of the First Judicial District, ruled that sales will be stayed until September.
Her decree stated that the pause was due to the recently passed American Rescue Plan, expected to supply Pennsylvania with “over $350 million to help homeowners who have fallen behind on their mortgage payments and property taxes as a result of the pandemic.”
Within 30 days of the order, the judge said, a supplemental order will outline how homeowners can access money to help pay off debt or tax liens, as well as “a process for requesting removal from the Stay by the filing appropriate pleadings.”
Last Thursday, after a Council hearing on the resumption of sales conducted by Bid4Assets, an online vendor from Silver Spring, Md., there appeared to be no common ground between members of Council and the Sheriff’s Office. But Wednesday, both offices separately sent letters to Fox.
Sheriff Rochelle Bilal wrote that after speaking this week to attorneys for Community Legal Services (CLS), the Philadelphia Unemployment Project, and Philadelphia Legal Assistance, and being made more aware of details of the American Rescue Plan, it would be “in the public’s best interest for the courts to postpone the Sheriff’s Sales.”
The sheriff had proposed a 60-day moratorium to better gauge the impact of the federal funding.
Meanwhile, Councilmember Cherelle L. Parker wrote that the sales should pause since “Pennsylvania will soon receive over $350 million to help homeowners.” She wrote that she had the support of 12 of Council’s 17 members.
This aid is designed to help people pay mortgages, utilities, property taxes, and other home-related bills that have led to foreclosure of their properties.
Bilal has said in town meetings and before Council that the online auctions are pandemic-safe, convenient, and cost-effective, which will benefit the sellers — property owners who couldn’t keep up with tax payments or their mortgages.
Many Council members, and attorneys for CLS, worried that the move to an online vendor will encourage far-flung land speculators to grab properties in the city and increase gentrification. They questioned whether the technologically savvy will have an edge over Philadelphians without computer access, and whether the Sheriff’s Office’s deal with Bid4Assets, which has conducted two auctions, imposes too many fees on homeowners.
The winner of a tax foreclosure would pay a buyer’s premium of 10% of the property’s sale price to Bid4Assets. For mortgage foreclosures, the premium is 1.5%. Other fees include a $1,500 deposit before the start of a tax sale and a $10,000 deposit before the start of a mortgage sale. Both of those fees are refundable if a bid is not won. There is also a $35 deposit fee for each deposit made. Once a bid wins, a processing fee costs another $35.
Irwin Trauss, an attorney with Philadelphia Legal Assistance, took issue by email with Bid4Asset’s required $10,000 deposit, which he contended “will likely exclude all but well-heeled professionals from participating in sales” and will keep those whose houses are being sold from bidding.
“The result will likely be that the prices bid for modest properties will be depressed, and that more of such properties will be purchased by wholesale purchasers who are likely to flip them as part of a generally predatory rent-to-own scheme, rather than by retail buyers seeking to purchase them for their personal use.”