Anoka County has the highest rate of foreclosures in the metro area, according to 2007 statistics, with calls to a county foreclosure-prevention hot line having quadrupled in recent months.

"It's explosive, unbelievable, like a train wreck with people who have overextended themselves crashing against changing interest rates," said Jan Backlin, director of home ownership programs at Anoka County Community Action Program (ACCAP), which runs the hot line.

"A lot of times, in the very beginning, when they've missed a payment, they've already gone into denial," Backlin said. "They stop opening their mail. Collectors call. They stop answering their phone. But this is very, very real. And it's getting worse."

Last winter, a record-setter for foreclosures, ACCAP received an average of five or six calls regarding foreclosures from panic-stricken homeowners. This year, ACCAP has received at least 20 such calls per week, Backlin said. And with a staggering 190 foreclosures reported by the Anoka County Sheriff's Office for January, the outlook for 2008 is not promising.

Last year, 1.57 percent of Anoka County homeowners lost homes to foreclosure, according to Housing- Link, a Minneapolis distributor of affordable housing information.

Contrast that rate with Hennepin County, where 1.17 percent of homes went into foreclosure last year; Ramsey County, at 1.14 percent, or even Carver County which had a metrowide low percentage of 0.94 of its homes go into foreclosure in 2007.

Some homeowners have been caught off guard by rising payments under adjustable rate mortgages at a time when home values are falling.

"It's sad," said Realtor Carol LeDoux, whose husband, Scott, is an Anoka County commissioner. "Teaser rates of 2 percent rise to 9 or 10 percent. There are unscrupulous lenders. Or people take out cash to finance other things -- their kids' educations, cabins, additions -- and now their house is not worth what it was two years ago."

1,848 foreclosures last year

Struggling homeowners in Anoka County can only hope that the recent past does not reflect the immediate future. Last year, Anoka County's foreclosure rate was among the fastest growing in the metro region.

There were 1,848 foreclosures in Anoka County in 2007, after only 849 in 2006 -- a rise of 117.7 percent, according to HousingLink. Only Carver County's foreclosures grew at a faster rate, but that may be attributed to Carver having had only 119 foreclosures in 2006 and then jumping to 287 last year -- an increase of 141.2 percent, according to HousingLink.

"Most of the time when people are calling [the county mortgage prevention hot line] they already are in crisis mode," Backlin said. "They realize foreclosure could be happening."

Most homeowners who call the hot line don't understand their options, she said. ACCAP has been occasionally successful in arranging three-way calls with mortgage companies and homeowners that have resulted in adjusted payment plans. Sometimes, the homeowners arrange to refinance.

'Never seen anything like this'

While ACCAP has been around since 1965, the seeds for the mortgage hot line were planted 15 years ago, when Backlin began counseling homeowners. Much of Anoka County was changing quickly, erupting with new developments and widening arteries.

"I know I heard about more foreclosures in rural communities in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but we've never seen anything like this before," Backlin said.

Anoka County compiles its own foreclosure statistics through sheriff sale notices. While they are not identical to HousingLink's -- the county lists 1,671 sheriff sales last year and 843 in 2006 -- the trends and percentages seem to match. Either way, they're not pretty.

And they show that in Anoka County, it mattered little when a home was built or who owned it when it came to foreclosures last year.

Last year, there were 13 homes with liens of $1 million or more that went through foreclosure. And there were 768 homes worth between $100,000 and $200,000 and 573 worth $200,001 to $300,000 that went through foreclosure, according to county statistics compiled by ACCAP using sheriff sales records.

In greater Minnesota

It's not just a metro area problem. In August, the Greater Minnesota Housing Fund, a statewide nonprofit affordable-housing organization, reported that foreclosures throughout greater Minnesota may have been twice as large as had been previously reported in national studies. In a county-by-county study of sheriff sales outside the Twin Cities area, it found 11,207 foreclosures in 80 counties statewide in 2006 -- nearly double the 5,995 reported in a national study by RealtyTrac, a leading compiler of data for the real estate industry.

"How do you help people who are caught up in real estate devaluation?" Carol LeDoux said. "As long as you haven't refinanced to the max, you may be OK. But unfortunately, many people have fallen into horrible mortgages they had no business being in."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419