Philly again suspends sheriff sales after outcry over sudden move online

  • Ryan Briggs/WHYY

(Philadelphia) — The Philadelphia’s Sheriff Office will suspend auctions of distressed real estate for two months in response to inquiries into 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.

Councilmembers first learned of the change after the publication of a PlanPhilly article in March. Councilmember Cherelle Parker held hearings over the shift to virtual sales last week, an inquiry that saw Sheriff Rochelle Bilal strongly defend her office’s move to resume the auctions.

But at a Thursday City Council session, Parker revealed that Bilal had reversed course.

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

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.

It is not clear if Judge Fox acted. But the same day, Bilal sent her own letter to the judge, indicating her office would voluntarily suspend sales and similarly citing the federal relief package.

“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.


WHYY is the leading public media station serving the Philadelphia region, including Delaware, South Jersey and Pennsylvania. This story originally appeared on WHYY.org.

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