More than 850 Massachusetts properties were lost to foreclosure in March, as lenders stepped up seizures of homes that have long been in mortgage default, figures released Thursday show.
The number of foreclosures marked a 36.5 percent increase compared with the same period last year, according to the Warren Group, a Boston company that tracks local real estate.
Foreclosure initiations, the first step in the seizure process, also jumped in March to 1,621, a 54.7 percent rise from the same month last year.
The escalating foreclosure activity is largely attributed to a push by lenders to deal with properties owned by people long delinquent on their loans. The average foreclosed home in Massachusetts had been in mortgage default for about 800 days by the time it was seized, according to the most recent data by Lending Processing Services Inc., based in Florida.
Timothy M. Warren Jr., chief executive of the Warren Group, said foreclosures last year were “artificially low,’’ because of pending court cases and changes in state law. Activity was at its peak between 2007 and 2010, Warren Group data show.
“I’m not concerned that we are seeing signs of a downturn in the real estate market or the economy here in Massachusetts,’’ Warren said. “We had an abnormally low number of foreclosures last year.’’
There is no doubt that the state’s economy is improving, said Alan Clayton-Matthews, a professor in the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. In March the unemployment rate in Massachusetts was 6.5 percent, a full percentage point less than the same time last year and well below the national rate of 8.2 percent.
“There has been significant employment growth over the past couple of years,’’ Clayton-Matthews said.
But that is little comfort to the thousands of Massachusetts homeowners still struggling to save their homes from foreclosure because of unemployment, a cut in pay, or a family sickness.
Isaac Hodes, an organizer with the housing advocacy group Lynn United for Change, said lenders are still resistant to providing significant mortgage help to homeowners in financial trouble. Hodes said he worries that despite a recent multistate settlement with major US lenders over allegations of sloppy and fraudulent foreclosure practices, improvements will be slow to come.
“The banks seem like they are on autopilot to foreclose or evict regardless if there is another option available,’’ Hodes said.
A state program called HomeCorps that was unveiled Wednesday by Attorney General Martha Coakley will use some of Massachusetts’ portion of the national settlement to assist homeowners.
Bruce Spitzer, director of communications for the Massachusetts Bankers Association, said many lenders have worked hard to help people keep their homes, but some borrowers are in such severe financial trouble that they cannot afford their properties long-term even with assistance.
Getting properties back into the hands of paying mortgage-holders is good for neighborhoods and the economy, Spitzer said.
“It’s sad for the borrower, and we recognize that,’’ he said. “It has to happen for the overall economy to benefit.’’