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21 May 2021

The Philly Street Guy: The Unfortunate Reality of Sheriff Sales in Philadelphia

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May 21, 2021 Category: Local Posted by:

George Bernard Shaw is quoted as saying, “ False information is worse than ignorance.” 

After witnessing the City Council hearing on Sheriff Sales, a couple weeks ago, I believe there is both ignorance and false information. While listening to City Council’s questions about the virtual sales in Philadelphia, I wondered why wasn’t Montgomery County Sheriff Sean Kilkenny called as a witness? They have been using a virtual platform for Sheriff Sales since August 2020. 

The Philadelphia Sheriff’s sales have been postponed over a year. That is when I realized that there’s an underlying truth that’s being ignored. Let me start at the beginning with Rochelle Bilal who reminds me a lot of Barack Obama. Long before Obama became president, he worked as a community organizer in Chicago’s largely poor and Black South Side.

 Long before becoming Sheriff, Bilal was on the streets of Philadelphia, building coalitions and helping poor people. She formerly served 27 years as a police officer another 10 years as president of the Guardian Civic League, an organization that represents African American police officers, along with being secretary of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP. 

Most recently, you can find her on the streets of Philadelphia feeding poor people in the middle of a pandemic. That is one of the reasons that she is the first female Sheriff of Philadelphia County today.

Which brings me to my point. Philadelphia is a POOR City. It is the poorest city of its size in the country. There are parts of Philadelphia that look like Third World countries. Based on calculations from the federal poverty guidelines the poverty level in Philly is at 25%. Consequently, the average Philadelphian cannot afford to take part in the Sheriff sale process. Of the 600 people that attended the Sheriff Sales each month prior to the Pandemic, it is normally the same 40-50 bidders that purchase properties. 

Accordingly, the onus is not on the Sheriff’s Office that follows a court mandated order to sell properties. The onus is on City leadership, (most of whom have been on the political landscape for decades), that have allowed this city to be in such a state of economic impoverishment. It’s an embarrassment to this city that only 50 people out of a city of 1.3 million can purchase properties every month.  

During the last session of 2020 City Council finally got around to addressing poverty through its Poverty Action Plan. This plan is supposed to lift 10,000 Philadelphians out of poverty by 2024. This only took 20 years to implement. The coincidence is that the poverty level has been going down in Philadelphia. During the same session City Council restructured the 10-year tax abatement. This was after decades of an economic disadvantage for Black and Brown people that were displaced due to an increase in Real Estate taxes precipitated by gentrification. The economic loss to African Americans was further precipitated by the loss of income during the Great Recession of 2008 and the inequity in Philadelphia’s property assessment values.

Councilman David Oh briefly addressed this during the hearing on Sheriff Sales but was largely ignored. Unbeknownst to most Philadelphian’s, the city was using an incorrect valuation method to assess property values. They were using an income approach on single family homes. Any appraiser will tell you that is the incorrect method. It is a class action suit waiting to happen. Unfortunately, there has been no City Council hearing on that. But I digress. 

The City Council hearing on Sheriff Sales addressed the money homeowners lose as a result of the Sheriff Sale process. This is addressing the horse after it leaves the barn. The real culprit is the legal system and the mortgage companies. When the attorneys for the mortgage companies file Complaints of Foreclosure, there must be service of the complaint to the homeowner. This is called an Affidavit of Service. 

In many instances these affidavits, which are to be filed with the court are fictional. In essence, they were never served. Consequently, by the time homeowners realize what is going on there has been a default judgment placed against them for not answering a complaint that was never served.  Who is responsible for serving the complaints and are they held accountable? Perhaps that is why there has been no City Council hearing on that. 

After the attorney for the mortgage company receives no response to the complaint, they then file for a Reassessment of Damages and other nebulous fees that can increase the amount the homeowner owes by tens of thousands of dollars. Sometimes a Judge will catch it, more times they do not. 

Additionally, there are circumstances where an attorney for the mortgage company will postpone a sale and tack on more fees. Sometimes it is done after a property is foreclosed on. Consequently, in many instances homeowners get little or no money back after a property has been sold at Sheriff Sale. Given that scenario and the previous scenarios mentioned the Relief Bill that will help homeowners is analogous to sticking a bottle cap on a volcano. 

The postponement of sheriff sales will cause an avalanche of foreclosures within the next 12 – 18 months, as a result of economic factors that could have been easily mitigated by counter cyclical measures. 

Finally, while witnessing the City Council hearing, I was especially taken aback by the disrespect shown to Sheriff Bilal and the Sheriff’s office by City Council. Conversely, City Council showed tremendous respect to the undersheriff of Allegheny County who happens to be white. Typical! Disrespect your own while revering folks of a lighter hue. 

As I continued observing the session, I wondered if some of the disrespect is driven by gender bias, fear or jealousy perhaps?  Another theory is some political toes will be stepped on if the truth comes out. 

Sheriff Bilal was attempting to provide a safe haven from the legal process that overwhelms and takes advantage of so many that cannot afford legal representation. I found that the Sheriff had begun to institute plans to help homeowners navigate the legal process for free. Some of these nebulous and illegal fees charged to Homeowners by attorneys and mortgage companies would be exposed. She was not just helping Philadelphians with their gas, water or electric bills. 

Sheriff Bilal is attempting to keep Philadelphians in their homes and maintain the only access to wealth many have.

The real issue is jobs, job training, education, financial literacy, accountability, competent leadership and political watch dogging.

 For this and many other things too innumerable to mention, she deserved a little more respect than she got that day from City Council.

The Philly Street Guy is a political watchdog who researches business practices, real estate and the sheriff sale process in and around the City and County.

Disclaimer: The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the article belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author’s employer, The Philadelphia Sunday SUN, the author’s organization, committee or other group or individual.

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