The second-floor conference room where many El Paso County residents meet economic ruin is austere. The walls are mostly bare, save for a clean whiteboard, two empty bookshelves and a map showing evacuation routes from the county office building.
A bracket for an LCD projector, also empty, hangs from the ceiling.
About a dozen people wait in the room on this Wednesday morning, as the weekly sale of the county's foreclosed homes is about to begin. Most avoid spots at the room's long table, instead dotting the room's periphery like ill-prepared students at a college seminar.
The sale, conducted by a foreclosure technician from the public trustee's office, begins promptly at 10. A man named Rodney, sitting at the table, offers $97,235 for a house on Mohican Drive in eastern Colorado Springs.
A woman counters at $98,000, and a battle ensues in $1,000 increments. The technician adds a touch of familiarity to the proceedings by calling the woman "Paula" as she bids.
"It's Laura, actually," the woman clarifies at one point. She "buys" the home for $108,000; assuming the current occupant, who paid $159,000 for the house in 2005, does not find a way to catch up on payments during a required 75-day "redemption" period, it will be hers.
The bidding takes a minute or two, then it's on to another house, which sells without competition.
Fifty-three other homes remain on this week's list, but no one expresses interest in any of them. With the room fallen silent, Maria Bennett of the trustee's office announces the week's sale completed. Two homes sold to outside bidders, and the rest reverted back to the hands of lenders who'd rather not have them.
In a few minutes on a Wednesday morning in a nondescript little room, 55 individuals, families and partnerships went from living the American dream to circling the country's economic drain.
Barney Alvarado, a stockbroker turned real estate investor, sits quietly through the morning's proceedings, tracking a couple properties that he hopes to acquire later from banks looking to cut their losses.
Though few owners facing foreclosure show up at the weekly sales, Alvarado says he often talks to them in their homes, hearing tales of lost jobs, sickness and dissolving relationships, not to mention cruel variable-rate mortgages.
Speaking after the sale, Alvarado gestures at the week's list and calls it "heart-wrenching" to think about.
"And next week, there's another list just like this," he says.
The United States, according to popular commentary, is experiencing a bursting housing bubble, the effects of an adjustable-rate mortgage crisis and possibly even a full-blown economic recession.
In the office of the county's public trustee, this means it's very busy.
The office is charged with overseeing foreclosures from the point when a lender reports a borrower as delinquent to the time the borrower makes good on the loan or the lender, or some other investor, takes over the property.
It's complex, arcane stuff, and for some reason the office is headed in 10 larger Colorado counties by an individual appointed by the governor. The same duties in most other counties are handled by the elected treasurer.
Patricia Thompson is Gov. Bill Ritter's appointee in El Paso County, and she took over the office in March, a month the county's foreclosures hit 325, which is the highest total for any month in at least 16 years. The average monthly foreclosure number in 2007 has been 282, higher than any year since 1988.
Thompson, a real estate agent and broker since 1992, predicts things will only get busier.
"I don't think we'll hit the peak until the latter part of next year," she says. "We need not to be in denial that we are facing a crisis in housing in our area."
Laws governing the whole foreclosure process are changing. Most notably, homeowners foreclosed in 2008 will lose the 75-day redemption period to reclaim their homes, instead getting extra time before foreclosure to "cure" their loans.
With litigation stretching some foreclosures out for years, Thompson anticipates that employees in her office will be administering foreclosures under both sets of laws for five or more years, simply based on whether the properties went to sale before or after the start of 2008.
Few people understand how it all works, Thompson says, and she expresses uncertainty as to why keeping track of it all is handled by a political appointee.
"This is really a business," she says. "And it needs to be handled well."
Not all bad
Two villains are often named in the nation's housing muddle: unscrupulous lenders who saddle people with unmanageable debt, and unethical investors who make things even worse for borrowers who are already poised to lose their homes.
Alvarado readily calls himself an investor, but expresses disgust that some of his fellow investors try to trick homeowners who already are in dire straits. In certain cases, an investor will offer a homeowner a modicum of help in order to leverage a grab for the whole property.
"I don't know how they could sleep," Alvarado says.
Foreclosures are a crisis for many people, but Alvarado says he sees opportunities, both for him as an investor and for those homeowners facing the loss of their properties. He sometimes helps homeowners sell before the foreclosure goes through.
"A lot of these people are really good people," Alvarado says. "The best you can do is help them save their credit."