Front Page of the Startribune today..
Twin Cities troubled by multiplying foreclosures
Home foreclosures in Minneapolis and St. Paul are rising at a rate that is beginning to alarm officials in both cities and threatening to destabilize some neighborhoods.
Similar trouble is evident in some metro suburbs and around the state, as more homeowners who plunged into the housing boom are now struggling with mortgages they can't pay.
In St. Paul, foreclosures are on a pace this year to be three times as high as they were in 2003. In Minneapolis, foreclosures have increased by about 79 percent compared with last year. Meanwhile in Dakota County, foreclosures exceeded last year's total by Sept. 1.
"There are more and more people who have purchased houses using mortgage products that they didn't fully understand," said Cliff Morse, a mortgage financial planner with American Home Mortgage in Chaska.
"Now people are falling backwards."
City officials and neighborhood leaders are struggling to respond to the problem.
This month, Minneapolis started taking calls to its 311 information line from residents facing foreclosure or having trouble making their mortgage payments. The city is also exploring the possibility of identifying at-risk homeowners before they fall victim to unscrupulous lenders.
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said foreclosures are now the top housing issue in the city. "It's on some level the underside of the refinancing boom," he said, "but it also has deeper aspects including financial literacy and risky lenders who sometimes don't have the best intentions."
What's behind the problem
Mortgage bankers and housing advocates cannot point to a single cause of the problem, but cite several factors:
• Relaxed lending standards since 2000 have enticed marginal borrowers into the market with risky and subprime mortgages that are generally at higher than prevailing interest rates.
• Rising short-term interest rates are increasing monthly expenses for families who have adjustable-rate mortgages.
• Stagnant sale prices are making it difficult for homeowners in crisis and investors on the edge to cash out.
Still, the foreclosure problem in the Twin Cities and the state is not as severe as it is in other parts of the country where job losses are higher and incomes are stagnant. Minnesota ranked 34th among the states in the number of properties entering foreclosure in October, according RealtyTrac, which keeps a national database of foreclosed properties.
Foreclosures in local suburbs, while increasing, are not as widespread as in Minneapolis and St. Paul. In Dakota County, the state's third-largest in population, foreclosures have been rising by double-digit percentages since 2002, according to officials at the county's Community Development Agency.
The largest increases have come in the past two years. Last year, 454 homes were foreclosed, a jump of 35 percent. So far this year, 523 have gone into foreclosure.
Even in Minneapolis and St. Paul, foreclosures remain a small fraction of the total number of mortgages. But city leaders are most concerned about the concentration of foreclosed homes in certain neighborhoods.
As of Nov. 3, there were 1,353 sheriff foreclosure sales in Minneapolis, according to data released by the city. During all of 2005, there were 870. And there were 414 in 2002.
Adding to blight
A disproportionate number of those foreclosures are in low-income neighborhoods on the city's north side. Some newly boarded-up and vacant houses are being stripped of copper pipes and anything else that can be carried out -- creating new blight in places already struggling with crime and poverty.
"It's an epidemic of grand proportion and a lot of it starts with foreclosures," said Tait Danielson Castillo, executive director of the Minneapolis Hawthorne Area Community Council.
Roberta Englund, a neighborhood leader on the north side, said she is watching with dismay as homes whose owners can no longer pay their mortgages get taken over by banks and become vacant.
About six weeks ago, she said, a house on the 3400 block of Newton Avenue N. that was home to a single mom and her four children was foreclosed. Now it sits empty with unraked leaves, peeling trim, a roof propped up by a board, and campaign literature still adorning the front lawn.
"I don't think there's any way to explain adequately how devastating one or more vacant houses on a block is to a community," Englund said.
The same thing is happening in St. Paul, where there were 623 foreclosures in 2005. As of July 1 this year, there were already 705.
The East Side and central city neighborhoods of Frogtown, North End, Payne-Phalen and Dayton's Bluff neighborhoods are where the problem is most apparent.
St. Paul City Council President Kathy Lantry said that part of the city's strategy will be to strengthen counseling programs to home buyers and residents with burdensome mortgages.
The nonprofit Family Housing Fund, for example, is working with both St. Paul and Minneapolis to come up with ways to reach out to those residents.
Tom Fulton, the president of the fund, said it is looking for ways to have properties purchased, rehabbed and sold to people who can afford them so they don't stand empty.
Get help early
Aside from the perils of living near a vacant house, neighborhood organizations are concerned the properties are falling into the hands of absentee owners who don't have the same interest in maintaining them as owner-occupants do.
Housing industry officials say it's important for people who are in or near financial trouble to seek help early.
Kristin Wells is among those who dodged the problem.
When she received notice that foreclosure proceedings on her home were imminent, she panicked, then became resigned to the idea that she would have to move out of her house in the north Minneapolis neighborhood where she was born and raised.
Wells got into financial trouble in part because of a brief period of unemployment. By the time she was able to catch up on bills, she learned that her mortgage lender would accept only the entire amount she owed in order to stop foreclosure proceedings.
Northside Residents Redevelopment Council helped her set up a repayment plan she could afford. She said she feels lucky her house was saved.
"When you're in trouble," she said, "don't wait."
Again, I ask the question...
We saw the impact out here in rural MN long before the Strib story. We saw the foreclosed homes in Stewart, Glencoe, Eden Valley, Watkins and Darwin. We talked to people who told us that the number of homes being foreclosed upon has increased significantly over the past year.
What can we do about it? I would legislate against predatory lenders. Secondly, as I talked about extensively on the campaign trail, we must stimulate the rural economies. We need real jobs in our area that pay a living wage and offer benefits.
With 50% of bankruptcy's caused by catastrophic health events, we need reform minded leaders who will advocate for the proverbial little guy.