When Sonya Tafoya stepped into a job training center in an Antioch office park, her facial piercings were gone. Despite a scorching early-autumn heat wave, she had swapped out casual attire for a sleek business suit — the first time the mother of four had worn anything so professional.
Tafoya hoped a nonprofit called Opportunity Junction would be her ticket out of the low-paying service industry, in which she has worked for more than a decade. Her attempts to move up economically have been stymied by various barriers: a felony record; the stresses of motherhood; a lack of professional work experience.
It hasn’t helped that good jobs are scarce in East Contra Costa County, which has transformed from a blue-collar suburban enclave into a new epicenter of Bay Area poverty in just 15 short years. According to census data, the number of impoverished people living in cities like Antioch, Pittsburg and Bay Point has soared. While poverty rates are higher in some neighboring cities, they have also remained much steadier over time.
What’s happening in Bay Area suburbs is playing out across the country, as inner cities revitalize and suburban outposts become poorer.
Seeking a better way
In early December, Tafoya, 40, was preparing to apply for jobs. “I don’t want to get home at 2 a.m. to find my son falling asleep on the couch waiting for me. I want to be able to come home, make dinner, eat with my family, go to bed, wake up the next day and do it all over again,” she said. “This is validation for me. It’s a way to let people know that you can do something great with your life, even if you’ve done so many horrible things.”
Outfits like Opportunity Junction, which help residents break out of cycles of poverty, have become increasingly important — although not necessarily plentiful — in East Contra Costa County. The growing number of poor residents in the cities and towns stretching along the Suisun Bay and into the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta is stark, although census data don’t account for regional cost of living, which could mean poverty is higher in places like San Francisco than the official figures show.
In Antioch, the proportion of people living below the poverty line jumped from 8.5 percent in 1999 to nearly 15 percent between 2010 and 2014. In Pittsburg, the poverty rate climbed from 11.5 to roughly 18 percent over the same time frame. And in Bay Point, the number of people below the poverty line increased by 11 percentage points, hitting 28 percent in 2014.
While a relatively large margin of error could place Bay Point’s figure anywhere between 23 and 34 percent, even at the low end of that, the industrial town’s rate surpasses the poverty rates in Oakland, East Palo Alto, Richmond and San Pablo — making it one of the poorest places in the Bay Area.
New programs and nonprofits have popped up to help the newly poor in East Contra Costa County, but services and well-paying jobs still lag demand, experts say.
“We’re dispersing the low-income population into places where hard infrastructure and social services are either nonexistent or inefficient,” said Tony Roshan Samara, program director of land use and housing at the Oakland nonprofit Urban Habitat. “We are seeing the next chapter in the story of segregation: low-income people in the suburbs and more affluent people in the urban core.”
Quest for American dream
East Contra Costa County is between two worlds. While the region was once more closely aligned with the sleepy towns in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, its population has exploded over the past few decades, making it a bigger and bigger bedroom community for the rest of the Bay Area.
Throughout the 2000s, scores of largely middle-class residents moved in, drawn by the amenities of suburban life. “They had a house and were sending their kids to a good school,” said Chris Schildt, who has studied poverty in Contra Costa County and is a researcher at the nonprofit PolicyLink. “They were achieving the American dream.”
During the Great Recession, the dream disappeared. The foreclosure crisis devastated the region. Many residents lost their jobs and homes, sending unemployment and poverty rates higher.
The effects of the housing crisis still linger, but a new trend is unfolding, one that mirrors what’s happening in other American cities. As people are priced out of hubs like San Francisco and Oakland, they wind up in Antioch, Pittsburg and other suburbs where housing and the cost of living are still relatively cheap.
The migration has spurred demographic and economic shifts. While the African American community has receded in most parts of the Bay Area since 2000 — in Richmond by 12 percentage points, Oakland by 10 percentage points, East Palo Alto by nine points, Berkeley by five points and San Francisco by two points — in Antioch, the black population nearly doubled, hitting about 18 percent of the city in 2014. The increase was one of the largest in the state.
Pittsburg, which was predominantly white in past decades, has one of the Bay Area’s most robust Latino communities.
Unlike past newcomers, many of whom were attracted by the possibility of homeownership, East County residents are now mostly renters. Between 2010 and 2014, half of the residents in Bay Point rented their home or apartment, a 15 percentage point increase since 2000. In Antioch, 4 out of 10 residents were renters, a significantly higher percentage than in 2000.
“The housing crisis in the Bay Area has a domino effect in other communities,” said Contra Costa Supervisor John Gioia, who represents parts of the western side of the county and works on poverty issues in East County. “It’s like a spreading cancer, which is why we need to address this as a regional issue.”
A ‘vortex’ with few services
Though she has seen the traditional transplants move into (or in some cases, out of) East County, Sonya Tafoya doesn’t fit into either mold: She didn’t migrate to the area to pursue the American dream, nor was she priced out of another part of the bay. Tafoya was born in Pittsburg, and has watched the town through its booms and busts. She is now striving to pull in a living wage while staying in the city she loves.
That’s where Opportunity Junction comes in. Through the nonprofit, she has learned computer skills and life skills, and connected with local employers. She even received a Christmas tree through the training center this year.
“They help with your whole life,” she said. “Not just skill-building.”
But the Antioch nonprofit is a slim thread in a tattered safety net for East Contra Costa County’s poor. While service providers have spent decades establishing themselves in cities like Richmond — where poverty has traditionally been concentrated — they’ve only recently begun shifting their focus to suburban towns and cities, where the population and need is rapidly growing.
According to a 2012 paper by Schildt, for every $8 in poverty-related social services in West County, there is just $1 available to poor residents in East County — partly because spots like Richmond have had a high number of impoverished residents for longer, and antipoverty groups have had more time to set up there.
“In East County there are far fewer nonprofits serving low-income folks, and there are far fewer locuses of advocacy, community organizing and engagement,” said Mariana Moore, director of the Ensuring Opportunity Campaign to End Poverty in Contra Costa. “It’s kind of like this vortex — the community isn’t well organized enough to understand, let alone demand, what they need, and for funders and investors, there’s no there there to invest in.”
The job market is also sparse. Unlike cities in the nearby Tri-Valley, where tech companies have set up shop, East County cities have pulled in few major firms to help reboot the economy. None of the county’s eight largest private employers are in the region, even though Antioch is Contra Costa County’s third-largest city.
Finding employment often means leaving the area, which can cost both time and money.
There are plans to boost the employment opportunities. Contra Costa County Supervisor Federal Glover, who represents parts of Pittsburg, Antioch and Bay Point, launched the Northern Waterfront Economic Development Initiative. Its goal is to revive the advanced manufacturing sector along the county’s shoreline, creating 18,000 high-paying jobs within the next 20 years.
“The more we can have people working within their communities, the better served we will be,” Glover said. “We have a lot of underutilized land, unused land that could be a good fit for industry, tech companies and recreation.”
Wanting to give back
Despite the potential for job growth, options are still somewhat limited for Tafoya. She is looking for office work, with a dream of getting employed at the Contra Costa County Public Defender’s Office as a secretary or legal assistant — hopefully one day becoming a defense attorney.
A terrific public defender helped Tafoya out of scrapes in her past life, and now she wants to give back, she said.
She understands that job openings are scarce and she may have to leave the area for work. At this point, she’ll be happy with any way to make a living that also helps her community. “I want to provide, but also let my older children know it’s never too late to make a change, it’s never too late to turn something negative into something positive,” she said. “If I can maybe make a difference, even in just one person’s life, I’m happy.”