Cities clicking together to fight foreclosure blight

The Twin Cities today are ramping up their efforts to curb rising foreclosure rates and falling home prices by launching a new website aimed at encouraging homeownership.

With so many new incentives for home buyers, Danetta Saul is considering taking the plunge. The Woodbury schoolteacher was excited to learn about a project being launched today by St. Paul and Minneapolis to lure more home buyers to the two cities. 

At first blush, it's a website that allows potential home buyers for the first time to click on any of the 80-plus neighborhoods in the two central cities and learn about every financial incentive available -- from federal stimulus deals to small fix-up loans.

But Saul also can gauge the "walkscore'' for any house she checks out, which measures the home's proximity to nearby coffeehouses, parks, schools and other amenities. She can watch embedded video, click on dozens of related links, view testimonials from neighbors -- and upload her own. (The site can be found at www.livemsp.org.)

The real estate industry has long embraced the Web and other innovations of the digital world to attract buyers, but with no end in sight to rising foreclosure rates and falling home prices, the Twin Cities are ramping up their efforts to curb those trends with the new website aimed at encouraging homeownership.

The stakes are high in both cities.

Median sale prices during 2008 fell more than 40 percent in some neighborhoods. The concern for some communities is that infrastructure and livability gains made during the long run-up in home prices could be erased.

With thousands of foreclosed homes -- about 3,000 in Minneapolis and 2,000 in St. Paul -- the website, in conjunction with many new financing programs, is the latest weapon aimed at spurring home sales.

"This is the first time all this information has been pulled together, and the first time that Minneapolis and St. Paul have used social networking sites to promote housing,'' said Natalie Fedie, a project coordinator at the St. Paul Department of Planning and Economic Development.

The cities will be monitoring traffic to the neighborhood sites, as well as citizen comments.

Both cities already have launched foreclosure prevention programs, Fedie said. And many of those houses have been renovated. Now the cities need to attract more buyers for houses ranging from foreclosure bargains to mini-mansions.

That's because while inventories of homes for sale have dipped slightly in recent months, there still are far more houses for sale than there are buyers. And sales in many markets are dominated by houses that have been through the foreclosure process. Because they're often listed at steep discounts, selling those lender-mediated listings is an important way of stemming the declines in sale prices in neighborhoods where there are high concentrations of them.

In the Near North, Camden and Phillips MLS districts in Minneapolis where foreclosure rates have been high, for example, sales prices fell more than 40 percent between 2007 and 2008, according to the Minneapolis Area Association of Realtors.

The new website will, however, also offer buyers more practical information that could influence the livability of those communities. Sometimes those assets get overshadowed by the downturn in prices.

Saul, for example, particularly likes the features that allow her to view the different styles of homes common in each neighborhood and their proximity to groceries and shopping. She hopes to find a newer home in St. Paul, but doesn't know exactly where they are.

Taking the pressure off

"It's a great idea,'' said Saul. "Usually you have to call a Realtor to get information like this. This takes the pressure off until you're ready to contact someone.''

The interactive nature of the website is what makes it so unusual, said Krista Bergert, project coordinator at the Minneapolis Department of Community Planning and Economic Development. The project gives house hunters and neighborhood folks a chance to start talking to each other online, in particular via the new Facebook and Twitter connections, she said.

The conversations could be about everything from the quality of neighborhood schools to the best nearby biking or running paths.

The cities are tapping into what real estate companies have known for years: Most home buyers start their search on the Web.

National research shows that 94 percent of house hunters between the ages of 25 and 44 tap the Internet, said Bergert. One in five of those home buyers use social networking sites, she said. The project was designed with those buyers in mind.

The project was funded by a grant from the Family Housing Fund, a Minneapolis nonprofit that works to maintain housing in the Twin Cities, said Elizabeth Ryan, a fund vice president.

"This is a fresh and innovative approach to showcase the many opportunities in Minneapolis and St. Paul,'' she said.

Staff writer Jim Buchta contributed to this report. Jean Hopfensperger • 651-298-1553

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