Postponing Sheriff Sales is the right thing to do — but it’s far from the only thing to do

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Sheriff Rochelle Bilal

If you’re a human being with at least one compassionate bone in your body, then you don’t like sheriff sales. These events, held to recoup unpaid mortgages for banks and unpaid taxes for the City of Philadelphia, signify nothing so much as the loss of a family’s home — the latest and most terrible tragedy in a long string of misfortunes ending in the bang of a gavel.

As Sheriff of the City and County of Philadelphia, I am sworn to serve the citizens of this great city. I am also sworn to execute the orders of the court, which include when to hold Sheriff Sales. Before the pandemic, this meant holding multiple sales a month. When it became clear that there would be no way to safely hold in-person sales — which could attract close to 600 people — I petitioned the court to postpone sales until the day came that we could ensure the safety of all participants.

In December 2020, I received orders from the First Judicial Court of Philadelphia to resume Sheriff Sales by April 2021. Knowing that it was just a matter of time before such an order was given, my team had done the legwork necessary to ensure that we would be ready to move forward with virtual online sales.

These sales have been an unqualified success, allowing for unprecedented protection for homeowners, attorneys, and bidders. In addition, the sales have generated better-than-expected participation and sales, which has allowed us to return even more money to those who have lost their homes while cutting the expenses associated with conducting in-person sales. 

Those expenses are more than $200,000 a year. That’s $1 million over 5 years, costs that are charged to the individuals losing their property. 

Virtual sales cost the individuals losing their property nothing. Zero. 

Despite the resumption of sales being announced last year, and despite months of outreach about the transition to virtual sales, there was intense pushback against the resumption of sales in some quarters, including repeated calls from elected officials and homeowner advocacy groups to postpone the sales. While there is no argument that resuming Sheriff Sales during the pandemic creates the opportunity for even more hardship for those caught in the foreclosure process, the law is clear: Without a viable, valid legal reason, I cannot petition the court for a postponement. To do so would open the floodgates to lawsuits — which, if successful, would have to be paid by Philadelphia taxpayers — by attorneys and plaintiffs who have the right to expect the court and my office to perform our duties regarding such sales.

But as I made clear during my successful 2019 campaign to change the way the Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office conducts its business, I am not someone who is content to accept the status quo. A few days ago, in the latest round of meetings my team has held with a coalition of homeowner advocacy groups that includes Community Legal Services, the Philadelphia Unemployment Project, and Philadelphia Legal Assistance, I came to the determination that the latest federal relief package contains legal reason sufficient for me to petition the court to temporarily postpone Philadelphia Sheriff Sales. 

In light of the potential funding coming to the City of Philadelphia — which should receive a significant portion of the estimated $350 million to be disbursed to the commonwealth via the American Rescue Plan’s Homeowner Assistance Fund, help could indeed be on the way for so many Philadelphians who need to stay in their homes. Accordingly, I formally petitioned the court for a 60-day postponement of sales so that all parties can better determine the impact of this funding.

While this petition is a significant step in the arduous journey to help at-risk Philadelphians keep their homes, the road ahead for too many homeowners is long and dangerous unless real, meaningful legislation is enacted as soon as possible. Without bold, transformative action by my fellow elected officials in City Council, the General Assembly, and Congress, when literally countless evictions that have been put off indefinitely by executive orders at the state and federal levels are no longer postponed, this city, this state, this country will bear witness to record numbers of homes entering the sheriff sale process — and no one wants to see that happen. 

I look forward to working with Philadelphia City Council, the state authorities responsible for disbursing the Homeowners Assistance Fund to municipalities, homeowner advocacy groups, and anyone else who has a plan to mitigate this looming crisis.

Rochelle Bilal is the Sheriff of the City and County of Philadelphia. The office has a $27 million budget and more than 300 employees. Under her leadership, there has been a renewed focus on community outreach and constituent services.