Lavina Mulder strums her pink Fender guitar and sings the gospel song she wrote during one of the darkest times in her life.
"Why should I worry?" Mulder's voice twangs. "Why should I be so blue? I'm a child of King Jesus, and there's nothing he can't do."
Then the 50-year-old grandmother takes a deep breath and recalls when these lyrics came to her.
It was May, about a year ago. Her husband, Randy, who'd recently lost his job, was tinkering with a friend's motorcycle in the garage. The Mulders' east-side home was being foreclosed, and they were about to declare bankruptcy.
That day, Mulder heard herself singing a song she didn't know. She wrote it down. It was the moment she knew her family - who, like many others in neighborhoods with the highest number of foreclosure filings in Des Moines, faced a future without a home - was going to be OK.
"It's really hard on your self-esteem, really hard on your self-worth, on everything," Mulder said of the foreclosure process. "I gained 20 pounds. It's hard not to be angry. We'd never been through anything like this in our life."
One east-side area - the Four Mile neighborhood, just north of the Mulders' old house - has had more foreclosure filings during the past three years than any other neighborhood in Polk County, a Des Moines Register analysis of state court data shows.
Any number of things can induce foreclosure: A lost job. A health emergency. An increase in the costs of staples - food, utilities, gasoline. Pretty much anything that means less money left for the mortgage. From coast to coast, foreclosures are also being triggered by bad loans, adjustable-rate mortgages and subsequent increases in monthly house payments.
Whatever the reason, neighborhoods like Four Mile are taking it on the chin.
Danny Wagener, a community organizer for Des Moines Citizens for Community Improvement, tries to partner with lenders and servicers to help people who have loans that became too much to handle.
"It's definitely impacting the suburbs and the new-build areas as well, but the greatest percentage of foreclosure filings are happening in the lower- to middle-income neighborhoods," Wagener said. "It's a lot of families who are on the cusp of homeownership who have been misled or put into situations that will inevitably fail."
When that happens, homes go vacant. Dreams are ruined. And homeowners are left wondering how their biggest investment got taken away.
The dream vanishes in snug neighborhood
The Four Mile neighborhood, like the creek that meanders through it, gets its name from the fact that it sits four miles from the Statehouse. Old trees loom tall. A few churches, a shuttered gas station, a video rental store, Victory Lane Motorsports Cafe, Brubaker and McKee elementary schools and Hoyt Middle School edge the neighborhood.
About 20 tightly spaced houses line each side of a block. Yet despite neighbors' proximity to one another, Four Milers keep to themselves. There's no organized neighborhood association. It's not uncommon for residents to know only a few neighbors.
It's a hardworking, flag-waving neighborhood, where people love to work on their own automobiles and where at least one home has a sign that reads, "Caution: We don't call 911."
These days, the more common signs in Four Mile are the ones advertising homes for sale. Plenty are foreclosed homes.
At least 75 homeowners have had foreclosure petitions filed against them between January 2005 and February 2008, according to the Register's analysis of court data.
The median assessed value of the foreclosed homes was $96,000. That's nearly $50,000 less than the 2006 median value of households in Polk County, about $142,000.
"They're not getting the money they want out of these houses these days, the market's so bad," said Kevin Lancial, who works for Des Moines' public works department and has lived in Four Mile for nearly 20 years. "And some people just get in over their heads."
Not quite half of the foreclosed Four Mile homes have been sold at sheriff's auctions. The houses sold at auction on average for about 74 percent of their current assessed value, according to the Register analysis.
One home on East 41st Court shows what can happen after a foreclosure: A Realtor's box with keys inside sits on the doorstep. A few windows are boarded up. Another window is broken. Pop bottles are scattered in the yard. Three notices from the property's new owner are posted in a window.
"Hello neighbor," reads a notice from Iowa Realty. "We are now managing the property at 2326 East 41st Court. We want to be good neighbors and will be doing clean up, mowing, snow removal, etc. Please report any suspicious activity to us or call the police.
"This property will be listed for sale in the near future. For any information or concerns, please call the IOWA Realty agents listed below."
For every sign of foreclosure, there's a sad story.
Someone like Lori Hall.
Hall and her husband, Guy, moved into a two-story, four-bedroom house on East 40th Street in October 2004. The next year, in order to borrow on their equity and renovate a bathroom, they refinanced with an adjustable-rate mortgage. Lori said the process was confusing for these two first-time homeowners, but they thought they were getting a deal.
Two years after refinancing, their house payments increased from $953 a month to $1,350.
The Halls couldn't afford it and quickly fell behind in payments. Guy worked at a window company. Lori verified employment for, ironically, mortgage companies.
And after a short period of unemployment, they declared bankruptcy.
Now, they're looking for a rental house, as their home is in the midst of foreclosure.
"When you talk about Four Mile out here, there's a lot of homes for sale right now," Lori Hall said. "If we'd stuck with the original loan, we absolutely wouldn't have these problems today."
Empty homes trigger neighborhood woes
Many of the increasing number of central Iowans facing foreclosure live in Four Mile or nearby, by the Mulders' old home.
City officials say the 50317 ZIP code on the east side has been one of Des Moines' top two ZIP codes for foreclosures the last two years. (That zip code was home to the most foreclosures in 2006, although 50315, in south-central Des Moines, had at least 240 foreclosed properties last year - 12 more than 50317.)
Bob Mahaffey, a Des Moines city councilman for the east side, said some homeowners in the area assumed increasing home values would offset the price of their loans. "But with the downturn of the real estate market, that never happened," he said.
City officials are also keeping an eye on newer areas, where statistics suggest numbers are climbing quickly.
The 50320 ZIP code in southeast Des Moines, which includes the newer Easter Lake neighborhood, saw a 75 percent increase in foreclosures recently - from 40 in 2006 to 70 in 2007. That's the highest annual increase in foreclosures among all Des Moines ZIP codes.
The city saw 1,013 foreclosed properties in 2007, an 18 percent increase from the year before. At least 1.6 percent of all residential structures in the city were foreclosed in 2007.
The more foreclosures increase, the more neighborhoods are forced to confront other issues.
"Abandoned houses affect a whole neighborhood," said Brenda LaBlanc, an east-side resident and national co-chairwoman of National People's Action, a group that aids in community organizing. "If you got a house next to you that's all boarded up, with the weeds growing tall, you'll have a tough time selling your house."
With all this comes the possibility of more crime.
"People driving by can see when a property isn't being taken care of," said Holly Olson, executive director of the Neighborhood Finance Corp. "Are you going to break into a house that's been abandoned or a house that's being occupied?"
For now, police say, most of the foreclosures are so new that neighborhoods like Four Mile have yet to experience increased crime or blight. The greatest leap in Iowa foreclosures has occurred in the last couple of years.
"Many of these homes haven't been vacant long enough to become nuisance properties," said Sgt. Todd Dykstra, who oversees a Des Moines Police unit that addresses quality-of-life issues in neighborhoods.
Neighbors worry and complain when a home becomes vacant and boarded-up. But, as people like Steven Watson, a married father of three and a retired U.S. Army veteran who works for Qwest, will attest, the foreclosure process affects family life even more.
In 2004, the Watsons bought their first home, on East 39th Court in the Four Mile neighborhood.
Early in 2007, payments on their adjustable-rate mortgage shot upward. Soon, their home went into foreclosure. The family avoided foreclosure by writing a hardship letter to the mortgage company, then paying fees and late charges on their late payments.
Between November, when the foreclosure process began, and last month, when the Watsons got out from under it, Watson said he found himself having a short fuse.
"I could pretty much snap at everybody," he said. "This was pretty much the most stressful time of my life."
After foreclosure, a new beginning
Which brings us back to Lavina Mulder.
Suffering from degenerative disc disease and fybromyalgia, she hasn't been able to get a job. But her husband landed a trucking job.
Their lender ultimately foreclosed. They went bankrupt. They had no idea where they'd move.
Then, an idea: Mulder's 76-year-old mother, Lucile Hundley, was living in a cramped apartment on the south side. What if Lucile got a home loan and they all shared payments on a different home?
They searched and searched. Then they found it: a tidy ranch-style brick home on two acres in Pleasant Hill. The downstairs was a finished apartment where Lucile could live, complete with a huge bay window for her potted plants.
The home cost $150,000. The three moved in at the end of November.
Not long after moving in, Randy turned to Lavina. It had all had turned out for the best.
"Seven years over there," Randy told her, "it never felt like home. Two days over here, it already feels like home."
Reporter Paula Lavigne assisted in compiling and analyzing data for this article.
Reporter Reid Forgrave can be reached at (515) 284-8260 or email@example.com