The city’s largest sheriff’s sale is authorized. Now what?
It’s a Tuesday in March, and Elva Daniels is doing something she’s become accustomed to since losing her job: filling out paperwork. Only today, the West Oak Lane resident isn’t looking for employment. She’s just trying to keep her home.
A week before the largest potential sheriff’s sale in Philadelphia history, Daniels is at the Philadelphia Unemployment Project’s Center City office on North Broad, where she spends the next four hours applying for an extension on the moratorium Judge Pamela Dembe placed on about 2,000 foreclosures in the city back in December.
“If I didn’t fill this out by today,” says Daniels, who was laid off from her job at a Fresh Grocer in 2009, “[the house] is definitely going for sheriff’s sale.”
The past year and a half has been a time of many “ifs” for Daniels and the other owners facing foreclosure. If the federal government passes homeowner legislation (which it has), it might allocate money to Pennsylvania (which it did). If Daniels meets the federal government’s criteria (which includes the ability to pay back your mortgage), maybe she’ll get some of it. If Dembe delays Philly’s sheriff’s sales a second time (which she didn’t), maybe that’ll be enough time for the bureaucratic wheels of government to turn the money through. And if Daniels can get a job in this economy (she says it’s the first time in 30 years she’s been without employment), she can stop waiting around for a federal bailout that may never come.
It seems like she’s been waiting forever. After a series of miscommunications and a falling out with the housing counselor assigned by her mortgage company, Chase, she turned to the Philadelphia Unemployment Project for guidance. Back in July 2010, when the Emergency Homeowners Loan Program was passed by Congress, PUP helped Daniels and others facing foreclosure fill out loan applications and send them to the Dept. of Housing and Urban Development in Washington. Surprisingly, when the HUD folks were reached for comment, they were shocked to hear that Philadelphians had been waiting on them. “It’s sad,” says Tim Styer, a counselor and organizer at PUP. “If we had not raised the issue, it’s pretty clear nothing would have been done. We’ve been in contact with housing programs in other states, they’re not even aware the program exists.”
HUD finally stopped dragging its feet after U.S. House Republicans threatened to bleed the EHLP dry (the feds will bail out Wall Street, but not your street). So on April 1, the agency released the much-waited-on funds to five states, including Pennsylvania. In typical pass-the-buck ($105 million, to be exact) fashion, HUD decided Pennsylvania’s mortgage loan program was “substantially similar” to the program HUD’s been trying to prop up since Congress passed the leglislation. It’s sloppy, sure, but it’s the closest they’ve come to keeping people in their homes.
“My sense is that HUD didn’t really want to do this,” says Styer. “In the long run, $105 million isn’t even that much money. Their thinking is, ‘How many homeowners can that really save?’ But we’re thinking, ‘If it’s three homeowners, that’s a big deal,’ you know? In Washington they’re used to signing big checks for the mortgage companies and banks, but our frame of reference is, we’re putting in applications for HEMAP [Homeowners’ Emergency Mortgage Assistance Program] all over the state, everyday, which can be only $11 million, so $106 million, that’s like hitting the lottery.”
So what’s that mean for all those properties up for auction on April 5? Hundreds showed up at First District Plaza on 38th and Market streets and placed their bids. Green Party Sheriff candidate Cheri Honkala was there, too, attempting to bid on foreclosed houses with Monopoly money. At one point, the national organizer of the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign tossed the funny money up in the air, referring to it as “the people’s bailout.”
“Even though the Emergency Homeowner Loan Program is now here and families have applied for help, this [Sheriff’s] office has still recommended going forward with sales, siding with the banks—but who will side with the families?” Honkala said after being escorted out.
But there is a silver lining. Despite Dembe’s rejection of a second moratorium, she offered this provision: Anyone who actually gets their hands on that EHLP money in the next three months will have the chance to buy their home back.
HUD’s new deadline for forking that over? “Early April,” a spokesman says. Well that clears things up. Timeliness, it seems, was never their forte.
In the meantime, Daniels and others in her position have more waiting to do. Another “if” in a long line of them. But whether or not she wins this particular housing lottery, the effort she’s put into keeping her life together through the recession and its hangover keeps her going. “The sad thing is a lot of people give up,” she says. “They’re too afraid or too embarrassed about their situation. And my thing is, don’t be embarrassed when they’re trying to put your house up for sheriff sale. Be embarrassed when they’re locking you out and you can’t get your belongings. Be embarrassed when you’ve lost the house you grew up in and you have nowhere to live. Don’t be afraid to ask someone for help with problems with your homes and maintaining your bills. There are a lot of people that are too afraid.”
It's hard to imagine a 48-year-old woman who’s been arrested more than 200 times becoming Philadelphia’s new sheriff. Disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer are just a few of the charges Cheri Honkala’s faced while promoting welfare rights. But that’s what Philly’s most infamous embodiment of grass-roots guerilla protestdom plans to do.
There is hope that the federal funds for Philly homeowners are still coming. Which is why sheriff’s sales for nearly 1,500 residential properties in foreclosure have been delayed a month.