PHILADELPHIA -- Sheriff John Green has spent 37 years in law enforcement. But these days he's best known around town for the law he won't enforce.
With the economy soft and thousands of Philadelphians delinquent on their mortgages, Sheriff Green this spring refused to hold a court-ordered foreclosure auction. His move raised eyebrows on the bench and dropped jaws among lenders and their attorneys, who accuse him of shirking his duty to enforce legal contracts.
It also prompted a sweeping, court-endorsed deal, scheduled to go into effect next week, that aims to help homeowners avoid foreclosure. Even as Congress moves forward with a federal plan that could insure up to $300 billion in refinanced mortgages, Green's unilateral approach has pushed Philadelphia to the leading edge of local responses to the national crisis.
"More of our neighbors, our families and our friends are falling behind on their mortgages and losing their homes" to foreclosure, the 60-year-old Green writes in a "Declaration of Neighborhood Stability" on his Web site ( www.phillysheriff.com). "My staff and I watch the suffering every day and witness the heart-wrenching scenes as families lose their primary means of wealth-building and face eviction."
Green's 241-person sheriff's department is the armed wing of Philadelphia County courts, charged with transporting prisoners, securing courtrooms and auctioning off foreclosed properties at sheriff sales. In a city beset by poverty and crime, Green has emerged as an unlikely blend of lawman, politician, spiritual leader and social worker.
A dozen or more desperate homeowners appear in the sheriff's lobby each day, seeking solace and counsel from Deputy Sheriff's Officer Marquette Parsons, who sits at the front desk wearing blue and packing a sidearm. "This is the end of the line," Parsons says. "They have to face reality now, because they're facing a sheriff sale." Parsons helps homeowners understand documents they've received from the court and advises them how to reach housing counselors. Sometimes he'll contact the lender's attorney to mediate a misunderstanding.
The sheriff runs ads in local papers urging people to take "Sheriff Green's Important Steps to Saving Your Home."
Green, a police sergeant when he was elected sheriff in 1987, has a politico's eye for his job. Last month, he presented a commendation for valor to an officer who was robbed at gunpoint while sitting in a barber's chair and wounded one thief in the ensuing firefight. Standing next to the taller officer for the photo opportunity, Green hiked himself onto his toes. "Just one second," he said. "I'm going to become a politician." Everyone laughed. But he stayed on his toes until the photographers finished their shots.
The sheriff says his political life merges with his religious calling. "Everything you do is part of your faith," he says. For the past 20 years, Green, who is married and has six children, has hosted an annual prayer breakfast that has become a see-and-be-seen event for the city's political elite.
The 80-page program from this year's breakfast is jammed with paid congratulatory ads from businesses and unions, clergymen and subordinates, office holders and office seekers. "When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice," wrote one pastor, quoting the Book of Proverbs.
The sheriff first made his mark in the foreclosure issue in 2004, when he noticed a spike in the number of delinquent properties the court was ordering sold. He postponed one month's auction and then went to Judge Annette Rizzo of the Court of Common Pleas seeking to legalize the move.
"We have to stop the bleeding," the judge recalls the sheriff saying in a courtroom crowded with worried homeowners. The sheriff says he doesn't remember making such a statement.
"Really what he did was not legal," Judge Rizzo says of the sheriff's decision to stop the auction.
During a recess, she summoned the lenders' lawyers, the sheriff, consumer advocates and the city solicitor into the back room. She asked them to form a committee to determine which individual homeowners deserved a delay, aid through existing government programs, or just a graceful exit from their house. But she declined to order a blanket moratorium on sales.
In 2007, the foreclosure wave began to swell again. Because Philadelphia didn't experience a big run-up in home prices, it isn't in as bad shape as hotter markets in Florida and Nevada. Nonetheless, foreclosure filings in the city rose to 6,237, from 5,288 the year before.
Early this year, approximately 1,000 properties a month were going on the block at the sheriff sales, according to the sheriff's office.
The trend caught the attention of Curtis Jones Jr., who had won a seat on the City Council a few months earlier and was eager to make a splash. He teamed up with consumer advocates and a senior colleague, Councilwoman Marian Tasco, to write a resolution calling on the sheriff and C. Darnell Jones II, the president judge of the Court of Common Pleas, to impose an indefinite moratorium on foreclosure sales.
On March 27, the City Council unanimously voted its approval. It was a non-binding resolution, more of a political statement than a practical one.
But as the council meeting moved to other matters, one of the sheriff's senior aides phoned Green to tell him the resolution had passed. The sheriff decided on the spot to postpone the next sale and go to court seeking a longer moratorium. Mortgage lenders, servicers and their attorneys thought Green was acting more like Robin Hood than a sheriff. "It's not his job to postpone things in favor of certain people," says Michael VanBuskirk, a Philadelphia attorney. The city, he says, is "less attractive to business if you can't be certain that the sheriff won't invalidate a contract."
Green and Judge Jones are casual golfing buddies. Still, Judge Jones warned the sheriff at a meeting soon after the announcement that a blanket moratorium on the sales was "unwise and more-likely-than-not illegal."
"It's not the sheriff's job to sell houses," says Deputy Sheriff's Officer Paris Washington, a veteran of the department and its head of training. "It's the sheriff's job to serve the people who elected him. Because he was elected by the people, he has to listen to the people. Aren't the people the law?"
In closed-door negotiations in April with lenders' attorneys and housing advocates, Judges Jones and Rizzo worked out a streamlined process intended to make loans more affordable for delinquent borrowers who live in their houses.
To give the plan a chance, Judge Jones ordered that sheriff sales on such owner-occupied properties be suspended at least through next month. The foreclosure wave "is a problem," the judge says. "Is there a way we can do this in a way consistent with the law?"
Green downplays his own role. "All I did was provide enough time for a solution to develop, which was the easy part," he says.