About forty-five miles east of San Francisco, approaching California’s Central Valley, are a string of communities in transition. Once farming and industrial hubs, the cities of Antioch, Brentwood, Oakley, Pittsburg, and unincorporated Bay Point exploded in population and new single-family suburban development in the last two decades as the Bay Area economy expanded. The boom was especially rapid in the early to mid-2000s, when rising housing values in closer-in Bay Area communities made these East Contra Costa County (“East County”) cities attractive to middle-class families seeking affordable home prices.

Yet even amid the relative boom of the early to mid-2000s, the typical household’s income in these communities stagnated or fell and the poor population grew. More than half of these communities’ residents were employed in lower-wage industries like construction, retail, and hospitality that comprised the cities’ new service-based economies. And when the housing market crashed in 2006, the economic bottom fell out of East County. Construction workers lost jobs. Families lost their primary wage earners and found themselves strapped for resources.

The area soon became the unofficial foreclosure capital of the Bay Area. By 2007, there were sections of Antioch where foreclosure affected approximately 1 in every 18 homes. Local fiscal coffers that relied heavily on property taxes took a beating, even as demand for services skyrocketed. Owners began seeking out stable rental income, in some cases from lower-income households using housing choice vouchers.

Not only did these challenges far outstrip the capacity of a strained local public sector, but they also overwhelmed the area’s extremely thin nonprofit safety net. Small, local job training organizations could not keep pace with the demand from a burgeoning unemployed population. Foreclosure counselors were in short supply. Most philanthropic dollars in the region remained tethered to historically poor communities in Oakland, San Francisco, or other big cities. Compounding the challenge, communities of East Contra Costa County lacked proximity and transportation options that might help their residents access needed services.

Today, this part of the Bay Area stands at a crossroads. East County is too big and complicated to exist just as a bedroom suburb, but it needs a real economic development strategy, more comprehensive local services, affordable housing, and better transportation connections to the rest of the region. At the same time, new climate change laws in California obligate regions to reduce their carbon emissions, and Bay Area planners worry that further investing in these auto-dependent communities could put many more cars on the highway and cut against those environmental imperatives. A sustainable economic future for East County will depend on more than a real estate market recovery.

DATA POINTS:

  • In the 2000s, the number of people living in poverty in East Contra Costa County grew by more than 70 percent
  • In just the three years between 2007 and 2010, the poor population rose by nearly10,000— double the increase of the early to mid-2000s.