Philly Sheriff under fire from critics for its passage on the Bid4assets platform
Council members also questioned why online sales had not resulted in more information available to the public after the sales were concluded, such as details of the individuals or companies that had won bids. They have also raised concerns that virtual sales will accelerate gentrification and lead to land speculation or the wholesale purchase of cheap properties.
The testimony raised other issues.
Angel Rodriguez, director of the city’s land bank, which manages a large catalog of vacant land for redevelopment, said he had struggled to coordinate with the new company. The agency is supposed to get the first crack in properties sold at sheriff’s sales, but was forced to use the Bid4Assets website to do so and pay the associated fees – which could cost around $ 55,000 a year to the Land Bank, Rodriguez said.
“Much of this problem could have been solved if we had been able to have a conversation before the sales,” he said. “We weren’t contacted by the sheriff … before the switch to virtual format.”
Lawyers for community legal services, who represent low-income homeowners, also reiterated that the cadre of 750,000 registered Bid4Assets users would attract more out-of-town speculators unfamiliar with local housing protections. The inclusion of a new third party made it more difficult to postpone or otherwise interfere with sales, she said.
“CLS represents several clients whose homes were listed for mortgage and tax sales in April and May, despite repeated public statements that no owner-occupied homes are listed for sale,” said Kate Dugan, lawyer by CLS. “This change has added a layer of confusion to an already overwhelming year.”
Council members had to raise their voices several times to keep order as the hearing dragged on for hours, especially due to El-Shabazz’s strenuous rejection of council members’ repeated demand that his office calls on the courts to once again suspend the sheriff’s sales.
He said doing so without sufficient legal pretext would expose the office to legal action.
“I don’t want the public to think that it is enough to write this letter,” El-Shabazz said. “It’s just not true. It’s much more sophisticated than that.
Yet subsequent witnesses have testified to instances in which earlier sheriffs had done just that – during the economic crises of the 1980s, during the Great Recession and, once, unilaterally, during Sheriff John Green’s tenure.
“I’m disappointed with the tone,” Thomas told El-Shabazz at one point. “What you are hearing today is some of the frustration that has been communicated to the board members.
The sheriff’s office later released a statement saying it would take the hearing under advisement to “fine tune” the auction process – while making it clear that online sales would not stop anytime soon.
“We appreciate this opportunity – and any other – not only to present our case for Virtual Sheriff Sales, but also to hear from people with differing opinions on Virtual Sheriff Sales,” Bilal wrote. “We will be constantly reviewing online sales metrics over the coming months and look forward to reporting our results to the public.”
Allegheny County Sheriff’s Office Staff Sgt. Gina Dascola was also invited to testify on Thursday. She said her office had also faced the need to conduct virtual auctions due to COVID-19 restrictions, but chose to simply host sales on live streaming services at nominal cost.
She said that since the change, she has been repeatedly approached by Bid4Assets and several competitors who have launched a contract similar to the one entered into by Philadelphia.
“When they called me I said, ‘No thanks,’” Dascola said. “Now I tell my staff to tell them I’m in a meeting. I don’t talk to them.