Sheriff Rochelle Bilal

Philadelphia Sheriff Rochelle Bilal said she was following the initial court order to resume the sheriff’s sales by taking them online. — WHYY photo/Kimberly Paynter

A Philadelphia judge postponed all sheriff’s sales until September, adding yet another setback to the much-criticized new online-only auction platform that Sheriff Rochelle Bilal launched this month.

In her order issued Thursday, Court of Common Pleas President Judge Idee Fox wrote that the American Rescue Plan, the federal coronavirus pandemic stimulus package signed in March, is expected to provide Pennsylvania with more than $350 million to help homeowners who have fallen behind on their mortgage payments and property taxes as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

It remains unclear how much funding Philadelphia will receive.

The courts will issue a supplemental order within 30 days to establish a process to assist financially distressed homeowners in finding available resources, and a procedure for property owners to get their properties removed from the stay, according to Fox’s order.

Fox issued her order a day after receiving a letter from Councilmember Cherelle Parker, signed by 11 other city legislators, detailing issues around the federal funding and calling for similar actions. Fox also received a similar letter from Bilal on Wednesday requesting a 60-day postponement of sheriff’s sales also citing the federal stimulus package. Fox’s order goes further than Bilal’s request.

Parker said in her letter that federal pandemic stimulus funding has the potential to save homeowners from mortgage and tax foreclosure sales but was not expected until July or August.

The courts have issued similar orders under similar circumstances in the past — although those requests had come directly from the sheriff. Bilal has said she was following the initial court order to resume the sheriff’s sales and had no “legal reasoning” to request a postponement of them leading up to Wednesday.

Parker said in her letter that homeowners in predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods were more likely to be “needlessly delinquent” since December, meaning they would qualify for forbearance but have not enrolled. And homeowner protections currently in place are scheduled to be phased out in the coming months.

“It is the duty of this Body to protect the residents and neighborhoods of Philadelphia, and this Body recognizes that proceeding with sheriff sales before federal assistance arrives will have a detrimental, and perhaps devastating, effect on both,” according to Parker’s letter.

Bilal said in her letter that she had discussions with the city’s top attorney, Community Legal Services, and others about the expected federal funding for distressed homeowners.

“Due to this new information, I believe that it is in the public’s best interest for the court to postpone the Sheriff Sales,” Bilal wrote in the letter to Fox.

Fox’s order marks yet another turnaround for Bilal, a first-term Democrat.

In March, Bilal unexpectedly declared that sheriff’s sales would permanently migrate online and be run by Bid4Assets, an online auction firm she hand-picked. Following political opposition from city legislators and others, Bilal walked that back, calling the online format a pilot program.

Sheriff’s sales resumed briefly this month after a year hiatus caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

During Thursday’s legislative session and before Fox’s order, Parker doubted Bilal’s reason for requesting a delay to sheriff’s sales from the courts.

Parker said the federal dollars coming to the city’s distressed homeowners was “not new information,” noting it was discussed last week during an hourslong legislative hearing on sheriff’s sales.

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