Part of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 was a provision known as Opportunity Zones that was designed to significantly boost the fortunes of low-income communities. Like many previous government tax-incentive efforts to spark investment in distressed areas, the provision offers tax benefits to those who invest in these neighborhoods. Some experts say it will significantly boost their fortunes, but others aren’t as enthusiastic.
Governors in all 50 states and five U.S. territories have designated opportunity zones — more than 8,700 in total. The size of the program has the potential to dwarf earlier attempts to encourage investment in poor neighborhoods, such as the enterprise zone programs begun in the 1980s.
“The sheer size of it is transformative,” says John Bailey, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Unlike past programs, tax benefits are unlimited. But there are experts who worry that some of the investment may not benefit the intended targets.
“The opportunity-zone incentive is most attractive [to investors] where assets are appreciating most,” says Brett Theodos, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute. “Where is that happening? It’s in zones approaching gentrification. It could be that the lion’s share of investment goes to a minority of zones.”
Another concern is that residents of an opportunity zone may not have the skills to work in the business created there, such as a technology company. John Lettieri, president of the Economic Innovation Group, a D.C. research organization that helped develop the program, doesn’t disagree. But he points out the tech company creates demand for other businesses — coffee shops, restaurants, dry cleaners — that can employ people within the community.
There are also skeptics of legislating social policy through the tax code.
“It’s not totally ineffective, but it’s only marginally effective,” says Richard Rampell, a principal at the accounting firm MBAF in Palm Beach, Fla. “It helps a few places, but mostly creates more regulation and work for parasites like me.”
The way the program works is that if someone sells an investment at a profit, he can defer the capital gains tax on that sale if he places the proceeds into a fund that invests in an opportunity zone.
The tax obligation can be put off until December 2026. It will be reduced by 10 percent if the investor holds on to the opportunity-zone fund investment for more than five years and by 15 percent if he keeps it for more than seven years. If the investor maintains possession of the opportunity-zone fund stake for more than 10 years, he faces no capital gains tax on any subsequent sale of his stake.
The aim is to encourage investors to place money in areas that urgently need investment. Bailey contends that’s exactly what will happen.
“This will help not just cities, but a lot of rural and suburban areas will benefit, too,” he says. “This will really be transformative for communities in the heartland that haven’t had access to capital and haven’t participated in the economic recovery.”
Theodos isn’t so sure.
“Will this program accomplish good? Yes. Will it cause harm? Yes,” he says. “What’s the balance between the two? I’m not sure.”
He notes some opportunity zones aren’t distressed, such as Long Island City, Queens, the area in New York City where Amazon considered establishing a headquarters. But the program’s proponents say zones like that are few and far between.
“There are some that wouldn’t be my choice, but 95 percent-plus stand up to scrutiny,” Lettieri says.
The average poverty rate in the opportunity zones is 29 percent, nearly double what it is for the United States as a whole (15 percent).
Less than 4 percent of opportunity zones show signs of gentrification, according to EIG and Urban Institute research, Lettieri says. The groups define gentrification as a phenomenon occurring in metropolitan areas with surging population growth of non-Hispanic whites, soaring median household income and high poverty rates.
Bailey says the areas designated as opportunity zones are starved for capital. About 75 percent of venture capital goes to three states, according to various estimates: California, New York and Massachusetts. Philanthropic support also is highly concentrated in just a few urban areas, he says.
Because many communities haven’t recovered from the Great Recession, investments in opportunity zones have strong potential, Lettieri notes.
Several projects are already in the pipeline.
●Habitat for Humanity purchased a mobile home park in Charlottesville in 2007 and with the help of opportunity-zone funding, plans to offer 800 units of housing, more than half of which will be affordable. Residents who want to start a business may be able to rent commercial space free.
●Newark developer RBH Group has launched a fund to build housing for teachers and other social impact-related projects in cities around the country. RBH has had success with a similar project in Newark called Teachers Village.
●An opportunity-zone fund, which includes East Chicago Gateway Partnership as a lead investor, plans to develop 225 acres of a 440-acre brownfield between Chicago and Gary, Ind., that has been listed as a hazardous-waste site since 1997 into a logistics and distribution hub.
● Hypothesis Ventures, a Los Angeles-based venture capital firm, has an opportunity-zone fund to invest in early-stage technology start-ups around the country. The possibilities include financial technology, health-care technology, agricultural technology, artificial intelligence and enterprise software. Hypothesis Managing Partner Peter Brack says the fund is looking at geographical areas that have less access to investment and are often overlooked by Silicon Valley firms.
●The HBCU (historically black college and university) Community Development Action Coalition and Renaissance Equity Partners, a community economic development advisory firm in the District, have formed a joint venture. The Renaissance HBCU Opportunity Fund, which is expected to raise $50 million, hopes to finance development of mixed-use projects on or near HBCU campuses.
● MidCity, a Bethesda, Md., real estate and development firm, obtained approval for a 108-unit apartment building in the Langdon neighborhood of Northeast Washington. “The Opportunity Zone designation allows MidCity to drive substantial capital into an economically distressed area, spurring economic development and job creation, and creating new housing and affordable units where there are none presently,” Stephanie Liotta-Atkinson, a MidCity executive vice president, said in a statement.
One challenge for the opportunity-zone program is matching projects with investment funds interested in financing them, Bailey says. Projects can list themselves on a platform called the Opportunity Exchange so that they can be seen by funds looking to invest.
“That will be powerful,” Bailey says.
The Internal Revenue Service defines an opportunity fund as an investment vehicle set up as either a partnership or a corporation for investing in eligible property that is located in an opportunity zone. Experts say the flexibility opportunity-zone funds have to invest in any kind of project represents a strength of the program.
“That’s a radical departure from past programs, which tended to focus on real estate,” Lettieri says. “There are plans for clean energy, technology, restaurants, storefronts of all kinds, health-care clinics, industrial investments, in addition to real estate of all kinds.” Investments will be relevant to communities of all sizes, he says.
But Donald Hinkle-Brown, president of Reinvestment Fund, a community development financial institution, says flexibility doesn’t guarantee success. “There are a lot of different ways to invest that qualify for opportunity-zone funds with a range of helpfulness,” he says. “Some are unhelpful, some are neutral and some can be very impactful” for disadvantaged communities and their residents.
To achieve success, investors must coordinate with local groups, Hinkle-Brown says.
“It’s incumbent on local nonprofits and governments to curate a portfolio of investments that’s impactful,” he says.
The fact that there is no standard of what an opportunity-zone investment should look like makes things difficult, he says.
Hinkle-Brown admires the sentiment behind the program.
“It’s well intentioned, but no particular outcome is required,” he says. “It’s an awareness builder, and we have to build as much attention out of that as we can.”
He and some others are concerned the program may not do a lot for many low-income people.
“It’s investment in proximity of the poor, but not necessarily for the benefit of the poor,” Hinkle-Brown says.
He and others point out that businesses forming in opportunity zones may not hire from the neighborhood, and that the businesses’ products might not be consumed by those who live in the neighborhood.
Projects may be insulated from their neighborhoods.
“Economic development is different than community development,” Hinkle-Brown says.
Theodos says the differences among zones play into this dynamic.
“For a community without a gas station or grocery stores, almost any investment is likely to be good,” he says. “Alternatively, when you’re looking at an area like Anacostia, where the median household income is $35,000, two-thirds are renters and displacement is plausible, bringing subsidized federal capital to produce upscale, unaffordable housing doesn’t seem like a good scenario.”
As the program plays out over the next 10 years — opportunity-zone designations expire Dec. 31, 2028 — Theodos anticipates modifications.
“I hope we take a much more targeted approach, so we can much more closely ensure we are getting community benefits,” he says. “We could allow incentives only for affordable housing, rather than all housing and only for businesses with ownerships that are disadvantaged.”
Lettieri shrugs off the criticism.
“We already are seeing a lot of investment far away from the low-hanging fruit,” he says. What’s pushing residents out of low-income neighborhoods is poverty and decline, not opportunity-zone investments, he says. “That’s what we should focus on: how to break that cycle. Some of that is a new mix of economic opportunities.”
Bailey says opportunity zones are worth a shot.
“We’ve tried to address this through government grant programs for over 50 years with limited success,” he says. “If that worked, we wouldn’t have these distressed communities. We need something new to reach them.”