Homeowners facing foreclosure got a holiday reprieve Thursday as Philadelphia's top judge ordered a 30-day moratorium on sheriff's sales while waiting for a federal relief program to arrive in January.

At the urging of advocates and City Council, and with the approval of Sheriff John Green, Common Pleas Court President Judge Pamela Dembe on Wednesday issued a stay on sales scheduled for Jan. 4.

Citing "the extraordinary and exigent circumstances surrounding the forthcoming sheriff sale and unprecedented relief that has been established by the federal government," Dembe ordered the stay and scheduled a hearing on Jan. 13.

City Council members Jannie L. Blackwell and Curtis Jones Jr. urged the moratorium at the behest of the Philadelphia Unemployment Project, the grassroots advocate for unemployed and low-income workers, which lobbied for the delay to allow a federal foreclosure-intervention program to take effect.

Most of the 1,498 properties listed for sale are residential and could be affected, said Chief Deputy Sheriff Barbara Deeley. The rule will apply only to owner-occupied homes, Deeley said Thursday. Owners will have the burden of proving they live in those homes. The PUP estimated that 1,200 homes are listed for sale in its emergency petition Thursday.

"There's a lot of happy campers in this city who were going to lose their homes right before New Year's," John Dodds, executive director for the PUP, said upon learning of the cancellation of January's sheriff's sale.

Without the cancellation, homeowners would have faced a total loss. By contrast, he said, "the loss for a bank is you have to wait a month."

"In light of the holiday season, this moratorium on sheriff sales will be the best present people living under the foreclosure glare and experiencing distress could receive," Jones said.

The stay is aimed at compensating for a delay in the start of the new Emergency Homeowners Loan Program, which is to provide bridge loans to homeowners through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Pennsylvania is in line to receive $106 million from the program to stave off foreclosures caused by unemployment or a drop in income of 15 percent or more due to underemployment or illness.

Although the program went into effect Oct. 1, funds won't arrive for Pennsylvania until Jan. 1.

"We certainly didn't want to see people losing their homes while the state was getting ready to implement it," said George Gould, the Community Legal Services lawyer who petitioned Dembe on PUP's behalf.

Dembe and Green suspended sheriff's sales in April 2008, as housing advocates predicted a glut of foreclosures and sought a better approach. In response, Common Pleas Court Judge Annette Rizzo worked with various stakeholders on a process that forced lenders and homeowners to the table to work out solutions.

The program has been lauded as a national model, and the city continues to lag behind major cities on foreclosures as a percentage of the population.

Such moratoriums are rare, and not generally considered to be legally defensible.

James R. Biery, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Bankers Association, said his members would not object to the 30-day stay. But he said the group was also "a little confused" about what inspired the stay, and would want a better explanation behind a moratorium longer than that.

"We don't think that Jan. 4 would be a good day to throw people out of their houses," Biery said. "We just don't know at this point, but we'll wait and see what the judge says Jan. 13."

Contact staff writer Jeff Shields at 215-854-4565 or jshields@phillynews.com.