Last week, I held a hearing in City Council’s Law and Government Committee to shed light on Philadelphia Sheriff Rochelle Bilal’s decision to move sheriff sales online for the foreseeable future.
In a hearing that lasted nearly six hours, we heard from people across the city — and across the country — who drew attention to issue after issue with moving sheriff sales online using the virtual auction company Bid4Assets.
During the hearing, it became clear that online auctions may have a substantially negative effect on the Philadelphia housing market by opening our city to bulk buyers and speculators anywhere in the world (speculators who are notorious for not paying property taxes), allowing them to purchase properties without ever stepping foot within city limits.
It also became clear that Bid4Assets, the company tasked with managing these sales, will be collecting up to a 10% premium on all sales in Philadelphia, while the rate in neighboring Bucks County is only 1.5% — a contract so lucrative for Bid4Assets that WHYY called it a “windfall for the private company.”
In the hearing, we heard from multiple experts about the strain these online sales will put on Black and brown people and low-income residents — the very people who are most likely to have their properties sold at sheriff sales. These are the communities that have disproportionately borne the economic brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic from its onset, and now we risk adding an additional burden.
We were assured by the Sheriff’s Office that protections for property owners, particularly those with owner-occupied properties, remain in place. We were further told by the Sheriff’s Office that emergency petitions to postpone sales can still be filed. But the truth is that this is an onerous process, presenting a real challenge to people trying to access the court at the last minute.
The COVID-19 pandemic has put an unprecedented strain on homeowners across the nation. More than 10 million homeowners in the U.S. have been unable to stay current on their mortgage payments, and homeowners of color disproportionately represent those in delinquency and default status.
Thankfully, help is on the way in the form of President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan. Pennsylvania will receive more than $350 million to help homeowners who have fallen behind on their mortgage payments and property taxes as a result of the pandemic, with an initial payment of $35 million to be distributed soon.
At the same time, many homeowner protections, such as foreclosure moratoriums and payment forbearances, will be phased out soon. This could result in an avalanche of sheriff sales, creating an uncertain, interim period where foreclosures are allowed before the arrival of the federal help that could render many of these sales moot.
We can, and must, take action to protect homeowners now.
Permanent online sheriff sales are not needed, and an out-of-state company like Bid4Assets has no place doing business in Philadelphia.
All sheriff sales should be postponed until the federal funds have a chance to actually reach people in need. There is ample historical precedent for delaying sheriff sales. It happened for a variety of reasons in 1983, 2004, 2008, and 2010, when sheriff sales were halted to allow homeowners to take advantage of various programs to keep them in their homes.
On Thursday, I am introducing a resolution calling on the sheriff of the City of Philadelphia to request an order from the president judge of the Court of Common Pleas of the First Judicial District of Pennsylvania to temporarily stay all mortgage and tax foreclosure sales until certain conditions are met.
Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, we must work collectively — at all levels and branches of government — to ensure that our economic recovery is fair and equitable.
Cherelle L. Parker is the majority leader of Philadelphia’s City Council, where she represents the 9th District.