Thousands of Philly homes head to foreclosure despite court system chaos

A judge denied an emergency request to halt scheduled sheriff’s sales.

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Bastiaan Slabbers / WHYY
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Updated: 5:25 p.m.

A Philadelphia judge has denied an emergency petition to postpone home foreclosure sales, despite pleas from legal advocates that the ongoing shutdown of the court system’s essential online services could put struggling homeowners at risk.

Housing advocates argued people could unnecessarily lose their properties at sheriff’s sale due to the ongoing blackout of the First Judicial District’s e-filing system and website. But Court of Common Pleas Judge Arnold L. New denied their request for relief Monday without explanation, they told Billy Penn.

The ruling means Tuesday’s auction for some 500 properties pending mortgage foreclosure remains on schedule. Nearly 1,000 other properties are also slated to hit the auction block for tax delinquency in the coming weeks.

“We felt that our ask was reasonable in light of the extraordinary circumstances that the court is experiencing right now,” said Rachel Gallegos, a Community Legal Services attorney who filed the petition on behalf of the nonprofit Philadelphia Unemployment Project.

The injunction sought to postpone all sales for the month of June, to give time for the system to be restored. As is, homeowners can not easily access their own court records or seek a postponement on foreclosure.

“Everything is being done by paper and we’re worried people are going to lose their homes when they shouldn’t,” said John Dodds, executive director of the Philadelphia Unemployment Project, the nonprofit advocacy group that filed the petition.

“Losing your home is one of the worst things that can happen to a family,” he said, adding, “There’s not going to be any great loss [to the sheriff] to postpone a month.”

Last week, the sheriff’s department originally announced the June 4 sale would be postponed, but quickly reversed course. The department now says it must forge ahead with the sale until it hears otherwise from the courts.

“Unless and until the Sheriff’s Office receives a court order to postpone any sales, they will be held as scheduled,” department spokesperson Dan Gross wrote in an email.

When ‘don’t worry’ doesn’t cut it

Gallegos said people are given 30 days notice of impending sheriff’s sale. Federal law guarantees homeowners an opportunity to petition to postpone the sale — but that process has been complicated by the complete shutdown of the court system over an alleged virus in some First Judicial District computers.

At-risk homeowners can’t readily access their court records or file requests for postponement.

Gallegos said she’s received promises that no properties will go to sale unless the legal notice processes have followed. Those verbal pledges mean little, she said.

“We’re just being told ‘don’t worry, it will be taken care of,'” Gallegos added. “But that’s not a sufficient assurance when you’re talking about losing somebody’s home.”

Vulnerable homeowners may reach out to Community Legal Services to seek a postponement, but some may not be aware of the option.

In the two weeks since the courts’ electronic system went down, advocates have already found examples of orders that should have been signed and delivered to the sheriff in person, but were not, Gallegos added.

Dodds, of the Philadelphia Unemployment Project, said it is not unprecedented for the courts to halt sheriff’s sales out of concern for homeowners.

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