Anoka County is one of many areas wracked by foreclosures and vacant homes, but the county is working hard to reclaim foreclosures to get them back on the market and stabilize hard hit communities.
The number of Minnesota homeowners at risk of foreclosure is up in the first three months of this year. If the trend continues, more people could lose their homes this year than last.
Wiping raindrops from the two gleaming late model sedans in the driveway of his red ranch house in Columbia Heights, James Thomas recalled what life on his quiet block was like before the house across the street was torn down.
"There was a whole bunch of people living there, so many people there all the time at nighttime playing the music loud," Thomas said. "It's alright on the weekends or holidays or something but not every night in the summertime, you know."
Now, the house is a vacant lot. Thomas, who has lived here 18 years, said before they demolished it he worried about the children who lived there.
"The kids would be all down the street here playing and nobody would be babysitting them, cars would be coming and a few times we had to stop the traffic just to make sure the kids were alright," he said.
Still wearing a nametag from his job at a nearby Cadillac dealership, Thomas said he would rather see a house than a vacant lot, but for now it's a relief.
"I'm not sad at all. I hate to say that about people but I'm not sad about that situation," he said. "The neighbors have been thrilled to have vacant lots there rather than the very substandard housing that was there originally."
A few blocks from the vacant lot, the county bought a stucco house for cheap and will invest about $50,000 into renovations. In a few months it will go back on the market.
Karen Skepper, Community Development Manager for Anoka County, said the county only demolishes foreclosed homes that are too structurally unsound to rehab.
Skepper said the goal is to stabilize home values and prevent more foreclosures.
"As you look around you'll see that some of these homes have made recent investments in their properties because there is some pride being brought back into the neighborhood by getting rid of the eyesore," Skepper said.
Once they are rehabbed, the homes are sold to low and moderate income families. The county offers incentives to help qualified people buy them, and any profit generated by sales is recycled into buying more homes.
So far, Skepper said Anoka County has gotten about $6 million as part of a number of federal foreclosure recovery programs. Other cities and counties across Minnesota have also received funds.
The federal government has distributed the money to buy and redevelop foreclosures both through the states and directly to some hard hit areas.
County officials say the program is working.
But the foreclosure crisis in Anoka is far from over. The number of residents on the verge of foreclosure is up in the first quarter of this year. The reason, experts say, is the economy.
Kyle Uphoff, Regional Analysis and Outreach Manager for the state's Dept. of Employment and Economic Development, said, at 8.6 percent, Anoka's unemployment rate is higher than the metro area's because of its reliance on industries hit hard by the recession.
"About 20 percent of the jobs in Anoka County are in manufacturing, so that is a very big factor in all of this," Uphoff said. "Construction jobs represent six percent of employment versus four percent in the region, so right away you get the impression that this is a county that very much depends upon blue collar jobs."
And like other counties that rely on blue collar industry, Uphoff said Anoka could take longer to recover once the economy improves.
Despite the grim predictions, Anoka County's Karen Skepper is optimistic about Columbia Heights.
"A year and a half ago, we drew our maps based on where the most foreclosures were and this area was hit probably the hardest of anywhere in the county," Skepper said. "As we redid our maps it has really shifted to the North and East of here so I would say this community is on its way to recovery."
Anoka has so far purchased more than a dozen foreclosures in just the last six months. The plan is to continue buying and reselling homes at a fast clip for at least the next five years.