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The Housing Crunch Worsens

Bidding wars for a scarce number of apartments and homes is sweeping the region. Plus, some good news about OPD, same-sex marriage, and solar power.

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A series of new reports last week revealed that the housing crunch is intensifying in the East Bay. Rents are skyrocketing and home prices have jumped sharply as people are outbidding each other for the small number of homes, condos, and apartments on the market. This latest feeding frenzy also is making it clear that city leaders in Berkeley and Oakland should be doing whatever they can to attract new housing development and fast-track projects that are already in the pipeline.

In Berkeley, rents rose quickly last year, increasing by as much as 9 percent as renters engaged in bidding wars over a limited supply of housing, the Oakland Tribune reported. The median rent for a two-bedroom in the city was $1,850 in the final quarter of 2012, and the median rent for a one-bedroom reached $1,325.

Bay Area home prices, meanwhile, soared by 24.6 percent in February, as buyers ignored asking prices and outbid each other for the scarce number of properties on the market. The median sales price last month rose to $405,000, up from $325,000 in the same month in 2012. However, the number of homes sold decreased by 6.1 percent. In other words, there's too much demand and not nearly enough supply.

There's also strong evidence that the foreclosure crisis is over. Foreclosure activity — default notices, scheduled auctions, and bank repossessions — plunged nearly 63 percent in February compared to the same month a year ago. It was a second straight month of steep declines. RealtyTrac attributed the declines to the "homeowner's bill of rights," which went into effect on January 1 and is designed to prevent people from losing their homes.

However, there are still a large number of homes that are underwater, particularly in Oakland. That is, homeowners owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth. As a result, these homeowners remain stuck in their houses, unable to put them up for sale, thereby keeping the housing supply artificially low. The problem is compounded by the fact that banks are still refusing to allow short sales on many properties — sales in which the homes sell for less than what is owed on the mortgage. This banking intransigence is making the housing crunch even more intense, and it's exacerbating the shortage of affordable housing in the Bay Area, as well.

Good News from OPD, Finally

The Oakland Police Department, which has been repeatedly rocked by bad news over the past several years, finally created some positive news of its own earlier this week. On Monday, Police Chief Howard Jordan announced that the department was re-embracing community policing strategies as a part of a reorganization plan that promises to increase police accountability and give residents a stronger voice in how OPD operates.

Under Jordan's plan, the police department is dividing the city into five geographic areas. Each area, in turn, will have its own commander, whom Jordan will hold responsible for crime trends in his or her region. The plan also will allow officers to work more closely with community and neighborhood groups to tailor policing strategies for their areas.

Over the years, the department has often been criticized for being too detached from the citizens it serves. But this plan should help Oakland police become more responsive to residents and create more positive relationships with the community — two essential elements of effective community policing.

OPD had previously attempted a similar geographic strategy under former Chief Wayne Tucker, who divided the city into three geographic areas, each headed by its own commander. After a few years, violent crime in Oakland then started to decline. However, Tucker's successor, Chief Anthony Batts, decided to effectively abandon geographic policing after the size of the police force became smaller because of budget cuts. Violent crime then went up in the city.

Although OPD is still understaffed, the return to geographic policing is a smart move, particularly as the size of the force grows larger over the next few years. Allowing police officers and commanders to focus on specific areas will not only allow them to forge better relationships with residents, it also will help them to become experts on crime trends those areas.

More Leftward Movement

A few weeks ago, I noted that a series of recent polls showed that the nation is becoming more liberal on numerous issues. And earlier this week, a new poll provided even more evidence of this trend, with a record number of Americans — 58 percent — saying they now support gay marriage. The Washington Post-ABC News poll represented a stark turnaround from 2006 when 58 percent of Americans said they opposed same-sex weddings.

The poll results also showed that Democrats and Independents overwhelmingly support gay marriage, but that a majority of Republicans still oppose it. As if on cue, the Republican Party, on the same day as the poll announcement, released a report that it had commissioned, showing that voters view the GOP as being "narrow-minded," "out-of-touch," and dominated by "stuffy old men."

Three-Dot Roundup

The new ferry service between Oakland and South San Francisco, which cost $42 million in taxpayer funds to launch, is a bust so far and could be forced to shut down unless more commuters start using it, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. ... Solar installations throughout the United States soared last year, increasing 76 percent compared to 2011, the San Jose Mercury News reported. ... And a new bill in the state legislature would allow bars to stay open until 4 a.m. in cities that want to attract more tourists and boost late-night business, the Chronicle reported.

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