PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Philadelphia City Council members went to battle with Sheriff Rochelle Bilal last week in a six-hour hearing about online property sales, but they were unable to convince her to halt the process.
Bilal's attorney Tariq El-Shabazz insisted she did not have the authority to do so.
"Mortgage companies, banks, they have a right when they have a (court) order to receive money for their debt," he said. "If we try not to exercise that order in a timely manner, we expose the sheriff and the City of Philadelphia to civil liability."
Several witnesses disputed that conclusion.
"As an elected official that represents the people of Philadelphia, she has every right to petition the court to stay the sales," said John Dodd of the Philadelphia Unemployment Project. "That was done in the '80s, it was done during the Great Recession. There's no reason she should not be doing this."
The hearing was called after Bilal rejected Council's written request to postpone the process and exchanges between Council and the sheriff's office — which took up three hours of the hearing — were fraught with tension and even hostility.
At one point, committee chair Cherrelle Parker interrupted as Councilmember Helen Gym and a sheriff's aide talked over each other.
"No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no," Parker said. "This is not what we do in hearings in the City Council of Philadelphia."
Sheriff's sales, in which property is sold to pay creditors, were cancelled for the last year by the pandemic but the First Judicial District ordered that they resume this month. Bilal told council members she considered various options before entering into a six-year contract with a Maryland-based online auction company, Bid4Assets, without a Request for Proposals (RFP) for the work. She said it was a pilot program and that the contract could be cancelled without penalty.
Council members and advocates who testified during the hearing raised alarms about online auctions attracting out-of-town speculators. Witnesses described a variety of potential negative outcomes: a reduction in owner-occupied properties as the buyers become landlords, the fueling of gentrification and the pricing out of local buyers — perhaps neighbors who want a side lot for a garden.
Community Legal Services attorney Kate Dugan told the committee she also worried that the process would be harder on people losing their property.
"We're concerned that these new out-of-town buyers will not be familiar with city and commonwealth law relating to the rights of those whose homes have been sold, such as the law prohibiting self-help evictions and the right to redeem, which allows owners to buy property back within nine months," she said.
She and Dodds both noted that the American Rescue Plan provides $350 million for homeowners in danger of losing their property and said the sales should at least be halted until indebted residents had the opportunity to tap those funds to save their homes.
Dodds suggested that Council itself ask the courts to stay the sales.
The hearing ended with no change to the process. The next sale remains scheduled for Tuesday.