From rural to urban communities, appropriate, affordable housing is in demand, and is increasingly hard to come by. In different places, appropriate and affordable take different forms. In our work, we have worked with rural communities that had a surplus of aging single family homes, but few rental apartments appropriate for single person households. We have also worked with urban communities where multi-family housing was being built, but all the units were out of the price range of a middle income earner, such as a teacher.
In places that are facing a shortage of appropriate, affordable housing, the question often asked is, “Why can’t we just convert that old school/warehouse/abandoned church into apartments?
It seems like a simple trade – there is a need for space, and these structures have a lot of it. Oftentimes, they are a link to the community’s past, such as an old school or a mill building. But the process of transitioning a commercial, industrial, or institutional use to residential is complex and expensive, and not a fit for every community.
The first hurdle is zoning. The principle behind zoning is to keep land uses separate, and sometimes for good reason; that old industrial warehouse along the river may have been part of a loud, noisy, and potentially polluting complex fifty years ago.
If that warehouse is now located along a riverfront rail trail, and within walking distance to bars and restaurants, it may make sense for the zoning around it to change. In order to do that, the city would either have to change the zoning, or grant a variance – a specific waiver that allows the property to be used in a way that is not permitted by the current zoning ordinance.
Zoning variances take a long time to be decided and are not a sure thing. This is especially true if the change in zoning would require more infrastructure and city services to be delivered to an area that formerly was not active. In property development, time is money, and the more time a property is tied up in zoning proceedings, the less likely it is to be redeveloped.
Retrofitting an industrial or institutional building into residential involves many different factors, and one of those factors is money. Older buildings are more likely to hold outdated and dangerous materials like asbestos insulation and lead paint. Utility systems and elevators may not conform to residential and accessible standards. And finally, building footprints (such as classrooms) may not align with codes for residential units.
Addressing each of these factors is expensive. Those costs add to the total project budget, resulting in higher costs that are eventually passed on to the owners or renters of the building’s units. As remediation costs pile up, the developer will compare the budget with other new build construction rents and development costs. If renovation costs push unit prices high above market rate, the rehabilitation of the structure will be untenable. And if it can be profitable to the developer and deliver a product within the market range, these costs can push the prices far above what is affordable.
What can we do?
Successful conversion of large, older buildings into residential properties can be encouraged by lowering municipal policy and financial barriers.
Municipalities can review zoning to determine ways to allow for conversion of properties, for example, considering if a former industrial site should be zoned light industrial or mixed use, or allowing for multi-family units in single-family residential neighborhoods which could allow reuse of churches and schools. Parking requirements can also be a barrier – it is likely that the residents of an 8 unit building will not have the same parking needs as a 50 person company.
Financial hurdles are harder to address from a municipal standpoint, but programs such as the Low Income Housing Tax Credit provides some incentive for building affordable units. The Historic Tax Credit is another way to alleviate financial hardship, thought this program is practically only useful for project over $5 million. If the project is in an Opportunity Zone, there may be a heightened possibility of attracting outside investment, thus relieving the need for bank financing, which can be difficult to secure for unconventional projects.
There is never a simple answer to how to create more affordable housing, and converting buildings from industrial and institutional is no exception. It requires flexibility and ingenuity from both the private and the public side to make sure there is a perfect fit.
Creating a Prospectus to Drive Equitable Development
June 14, 2019
2:00pm EST – 3:00pm EST
Opportunity Zones (OZs) were developed to funnel $6 trillion of private investment into designated low-income census tracts. With the roll-out of this legislation, it appears that without intervention, capital is likely to flow to those OZs that would have seen development anyway, unless community-serving projects that are investment ready are highlighted for Opportunity Funds.
Now is the time for municipal leaders and economic developers to act quickly to ensure that community-driven and benefiting projects in OZs are a strategic part of a community’s vision for growth, framed as a mutually beneficial investment, and, where needed, coupled with incentives to attract truly revolutionary investment.
In this webinar, you will learn how Fourth Economy has helped facilitate community-driven prioritization of development projects from Jerome Jackson, Executive Director of Operation Better Block in the Homewood neighborhood of Pittsburgh, PA. His organization recently completed a key land-use plan for 10 sections of the largely black neighborhood, which has more than 2,000 vacant lots and 600 vacant buildings. Fourth Economy was part of this process, and assisted in prioritizing development projects with the community.
Emily Brown, Director of Economic Strategy at Fourth Economy, will explain how Fourth Economy’s work in Homewood informs their approach for helping create a community driven Investment Prospectus for Opportunity Zones.
Questions we will address are:
- How can I market to Opportunity Funds and individual OZ Investors that align with my community’s needs and values?
- How can I leverage this tool to further the goals of equity and equality in my community?
- What happens after the 10 year period of investment is over?
- Can we (and should we) start our own Opportunity Fund?
- How should we prioritize our Opportunity Zones and the specific projects therein?
- What should we try to create in our Opportunity Zones, and how can we get the surrounding communities’ support for these projects?
Opportunity Zones are getting a lot of hype these days, and for good reason. They are designed to funnel $6.1 trillion into distressed communities through encouraging investment of capital gains and can be used to fund real estate investment as well as investment in businesses. Oh, and these investments need to happen by December 22, 2019 to realize the full benefit the program. (If you need a quick refresher on Opportunity Zones, check out the Economic Innovation Group’s FAQs).
Since being signed into law with the 2017 Tax Act, Opportunity Zones have already been used to fund real estate development projects. While investors have been quick to implement, the rest of us are still trying to figure out what Opportunity Zones mean for communities. Below, I explain important aspects of Opportunity Zones that you can take into your next meeting with investors.
New Regulations Create a Better Deal for Business Investing
Unlike many other federal economic development programs, Opportunity Zones are not being run through the Department of Commerce or the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Because they are, essentially, a tax break, the Internal Revenue Service is responsible for their administration. The IRS has been taking suggestions from leading experts in Washington and beyond to develop the guiding regulations for Opportunity Zones, and recently released the second tranche of regulations.
Of particular interest is that the so-called 50% rule has been changed. In an effort to prevent shell companies from exploiting tax breaks, regulators previously required that businesses receive half of their gross income from within their Opportunity Zone. While this may have worked for a grocery store, it would not support businesses that were hoping to manufacture a product to be sold widely.
But that has changed. According to Bisnow,
“Under the new set of regulations, a business funded by a qualified opportunity fund and located in an opportunity zone, could qualify for the tax incentives if it meets one of three “safe harbors”: at least 50% of the hours the employees or contractors work are spent within the opportunity zone, half of the company’s services are within the area or if the management and operations are based in the designated zones.”
The new regulations also clarify that investors will be allowed to invest in and sell a business as long as the proceeds are reinvested into another Opportunity Zone, and that real estate investors will be allowed to lease and refinance their properties.
Unfortunately, this round of regulations did not address critics’ concerns for more oversight, and did not introduce any ways for tracking investment in the Zones, or how to measure positive impacts for populations currently living in Opportunity Zones.
Opportunity Zones and Economic Development Administration Funds
Adjacent government agencies are also determining how their programs will interact with Opportunity Zones. The Economic Development Administration (EDA) has taken the step to open EDA funds to eligible entities within Qualified Opportunity Zones. This means that entities in Opportunity Zones applying for EDA funds via the 2018 Notice of Funding Opportunity for Public Works and Economic Adjustment Assistance Programs have an increased level of eligibility. According to a recent EDA blog post, since FY 2018, EDA has invested more than $13 million in 22 projects in Opportunity Zones to help communities and regions build the capacity for economic development.
If an Opportunity Zone in your area is facing a significant infrastructure challenge, EDA funds may be able to help. For example, EDA recently funded a $2.5 million replacement of flood infrastructure in an Opportunity Zone in the city of Dubuque, Iowa.
Marketing Your Opportunity Zones
Opportunity Zones are invested in by Opportunity Funds, which are run by investors, banks, and special interest firms. Targeting this wide ranging group requires a combination of collaborative strategic planning, marketing, and policy alignment.
A community driven strategic plan will help ensure that the current population’s needs and preferences are considered in the development of an Opportunity Zone. Fourth Economy has developed a planning process focused on community engagement; our Market Cards allow community members to take on the role of the developer or business owner, which leads to feasible, collaboratively designed strategic plans. This process results in a list of potential projects that have been vetted by both the community, and are financially feasible, thus forming a prospectus of investment that can be shared with Opportunity Fund investors.
Marketing for Opportunity Zones should happen on the city, region, or state level. So far, the most success in Opportunity Zone development has been through these larger entities promoting the Zones in their jurisdiction. For example, Colorado and Alabama have set up specific website that connects investors with properties and businesses in Opportunity Zones; Co-Invest, and Opportunity Alabama. Another best practice is to hire a coordinator specifically to oversee Opportunity Zones, as the City of Baltimore has done.
Finally, all city, state, and federal policies should be aligned. If your state has a capital gains tax, and does not allow for deferment in Opportunity Zones, that could dissuade investors. Novogradac has posted a map of state tax code conformity. On a local level, cities should aim for quick permitting, and instigate policies that will protect those already living in Opportunity Zones. For example, in an effort to slow rapid neighborhood change, Philadelphia freezes taxes for residents who have lived in their homes for more than ten years.
At Fourth Economy, our focus is on helping communities develop strategies that will make a big impact. For major projects, that often means identifying and assisting in applying for federal assistance. The federal landscape can be confusing, especially when trying to keep up with the news out of Washington. We can help sort through the thicket of regulations to find opportunities that align with your communities plans by leveraging our experience with federal programs and our engagement with national trade groups.
One of the best groups to keep up to date with opportunities in Washington is the International Economic Development Council (IEDC). Matt Mullin, IEDC’s Vice President of Policy & Communications heads up their policy efforts, so I reached out to him for an overview of the federal role in local community and economic development.
One of the best groups to keep up to date with opportunities in Washington is the International Economic Development Council (IEDC). Matt Mullin, IEDC’s Vice President of Policy & Communications heads up their policy efforts, so I reached out to him for an overview of the federal role in local community and economic development.
Emily: Why do economic developers need to know what is happening on a national policy level? Don’t they have enough to deal with in their own communities?
Matt: The federal government, whether functioning well, or not, plays a significant role in what happens at the local and regional level on both a macro and micro scale.
On the macro scale, the rhetoric coming out of Washington influences the international economy. When a president is talking about trade with China it impacts business decisions that are being made about future supply chains, distribution and other factors.
On a micro level, the federal government is still spending money. While the administration is not supportive of economic development programs in their budget, congress has ignored them and has pumped more money into our key programs. These federal resources make direct impacts on the local level.
I understand that seeking federal aid in this climate can be exhausting, especially for small communities where it is hard to find the time and resources to apply for and report on grants. It is easy to make a decision to ignore the federal government during this time. That’s unfortunate, because those that are persistent have a real opportunity to get resources that have not been available in the past.
Emily: What resources does IEDC provide for economic developers to learn more about public policy and federal resources?
Matt: We provide research analysis and advocacy resources to help members remain engaged in DC. Last year, we published a guide that outlines investments in local economic development projects from different agencies is available for free download on the IEDC website. We provide federal updates in our newsletter, legislative alerts when key pieces are under consideration, and updates at key moments in legislative calendar.
We also advocate on the behalf of the profession, to the administration, to federal agencies and to congress. Furthermore, IEDC has a Public Policy Advisory Committee that informs our board on policy and legislation. This is the general membership’s voice to the IEDC board on public policy.
Emily: This administration certainly has an unconventional approach to economic development! What are some of the changes you have seen?
Matt: Their agenda for economic policy seems to be largely grounded in trade policy; tariffs, trade negotiations, NAFTA, China. Early on they had suggested they would drop multinational trade agreements in favor of bi-national. That has largely fallen on the wayside. Now they are focused on China and Canada and Mexico through revising NAFTA. Outside of that, not clear what major initiatives that they will engage in.
Previously, administrations would create focus areas. For example, the last administration took on the Investing in Manufacturing Communities Partnership. That was not a funded initiative but it put a spotlight on regional strategies for manufacturing. Programs like those do not exist currently.
Emily: What about Opportunity Zones?
Matt: Opportunity Zones are a program that was included in the 2017 tax bill. The program was something that had been worked on for some time by Economic Innovation Group in collaboration with Senators Cory Booker and Tim Scott. This is the first tax credit program since New Markets Tax Credits, which are over 10 years old. The program is under the purview of the Department of Treasury. They collaborated with the CDFI Fund to get the ball rolling, and now the Internal Revenue Service is taking it over.
It came as a bit of a surprise, and there has been some scrambling, but now all zones are identified and the regulations are being completed. No more zones will be identified for this round, but it is possible that, if all goes well, there may be future iterations. This is a bright spot in an otherwise uncertain climate for economic development and the administration has thankfully embraced it.
Emily: Are there any programs that most economic developers don’t know about that you feel are particularly useful and important?
Matt: According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), there are 120 federal economic development programs. GAO needs to revisit this because while there are many programs that have the ability to improve the economy through investment, not all are specifically economic development oriented.
In terms of economic development programs, I think EDA is deserving of greater attention because it is the only federal agency specifically and exclusively designed to engage in economic development actions. It’s only purpose is to help local communities experiencing economic distress through investments in infrastructure, planning, and technical assistance. In fact, EDA is the lead agency for economic recovery following disaster at the federal level because it is precisely the type of work it does on a daily basis. They are the experts in economic recovery and resiliency.
EDA was created through the Public Works and Economic Development Act of 1965 (PWEDA). Reading over the signing statement made by President Lyndon Johnson over 50 years ago reveals the relevancy of the agency to this day.
Emily: Aren’t you putting on a conference soon?
Matt: Yes. The Federal Economic Development (FED) Forum is the only annual conference of its kind. While there are lots of legislative conferences, this is the only one focused on federal economic development programs and policies. You will typically see two dozen or more agencies on our program and usually the person participating is the lead program director. At this conference, the connections that you make can translate into getting a grant, getting answers, getting assistance on bureaucratic issues that you would not otherwise have.
These are the people you want to know and form relationships with, because, even in this environment, there are still many career civil servants who believe in the work they do and want to help you.
One of the speakers I am most excited about is Fran Seegal who is the Executive Director of the U.S. Impact Investing Alliance, which is being incubated at the Ford Foundation. She will be talking about their work in standards and best practices for communities in Opportunity Zones, especially advancing community development in sync with economic development. We’ll also be welcoming the newly-confirmed head of EDA, Dr. John Fleming.
Plus, it is springtime in Washington!
Who are you designing your talent attraction and retention program for? You might say, “For everyone!” And you might mean that – in today’s tight labor market, being able to keep and attract a great workforce means widening the definition of “talent”.
We know that the economic development profession is overwhelmingly caucasian, and, especially in areas of leadership, skews male.
When talent attraction and retention programs are designed by older, white males, then the community enters into a loop of marketing the program right back to the same audience. This is known as “cognitive bias” and it shows up in every field. A startling example of this comes from the U.S. auto-industry’s all-male teams of engineers. They designed the earliest air bags for test subjects that resembled themselves, the result of which killed many women and children whose smaller bodies were not accounted for.
To be fair, the stakes for talent attraction and retention campaigns are not quite as high, but we know that companies are increasingly making operating and relocation decisions based on the availability of a strong workforce. The more educated and talented these workers are, the more competitive a community’s case will be. Rather than focusing your strategy on “everybody” perhaps it is time to target one of the largest sectors of the talent market – Millennial women.
Sisters are doing it for themselves
Why millennial women? Millennial women are highly educated, high earners, and entrepreneurial.
Consider the following statistics:
- About 36% of women ages 25-34 have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with about 28% of men who are the same age.
- Though there is still a gender wage gap, women’s wages are rising; between 1975 and 2016, the share of young women earning less than $30,000/yr plummeted from 79.6 percent to 58.1 percent.
- Women are starting about 1,821 new U.S. businesses per day, a significant uptick from an average of 952 between 2012 and 2017.
- There are more than 9 million women owned businesses in the US today.
There are many reasons why women are playing a larger role in the economy, not including the relaxed expectations for women to immediately enter traditional marriages.
One reason for their increasing role is, ironically, due to traditional gender roles. Because of sexism in blue collar jobs, women have more of a need for education than men to earn comparable salaries. Of the jobs that do not require a college degree, the highest paying ones typically go to men. Plumbers, electricians and truck drivers have higher wages than female-dominated jobs that don’t require a degree such as secretarial work, child care or restaurant-industry jobs. This has resulted in women seeking out higher education more often than men and has created a pool of young, female knowledge workers.
The impact of women on your community
Attracting more women impacts your community favorably, both economically and socially.
Furthermore, women control a lot of money and spending. Globally, women are responsible for 85% of consumer spending: the average woman is making purchases for herself, her husband or partner, her children and her elderly parents. That translates into a powerful economic force in your community.
One industry in particular that has benefitted from more women in the workplace is the wellness economy. From 2015-2017, the wellness economy grew from $3.7 trillion to $4.2 trillion, or by 6.4% annually, a growth rate nearly twice as fast as global economic growth. This includes sectors such as Wellness Tourism ($639 billion) Personal Care Beauty & Anti-Aging ($1,083 billion) and the Spa Economy ($119 billion). More women in your community means more jobs for those in the health and beauty industry.
Additionally, a report from the Bureau of Labor statistics shows that women volunteer at a higher rate than men, across all age groups, educational levels, and other major demographic characteristics. Think of all the aging non-profit boards in your community – attracting young women is a way to ensure the continuity organizations and supplement their leadership!
Millennial women, between the ages of 25 and 35, are reaching a point in their careers where they need to make a decision about where to locate more permanently. Due to lower rates of marriage and childbirth, this population is mobile. But they need a good reason to call your community home. Designing your marketing strategy so it speaks to women’s needs and wants will ultimately determine if they choose to relocate and exercise their social and economic abilities in your community.
How to reach these women where it will impact them?
When marketing to millennial women, like any group, it is important to target their key motivations and speak to their values in a way that resonates. Showing, rather than telling, that your community’s values align with theirs can influence decision making.
To attract women, you should speak to the following:
While millenials in general are not buying homes at the same rate as previous generations (hello student loan debt!), single women are buying homes and condos at nearly twice the rate of single males.
Personally, this statistic aligns with my lived experience. I moved from Washington D.C. to Pittsburgh partially because I could afford to purchase my own home. And when comparing the status of many of my closest friends in each place, a majority of my Pittsburgh friends own homes, whereas only a couple of my D.C. friends did.
Does your community have plentiful and affordable housing available for purchase? Make sure it is highlighted in your marketing efforts.
And let’s not forget the pay gap. On average, women make 80% of what men make. (Www.aauw.org). That’s due to a lot of factors but it’s a fact that women are very aware of. Showcasing businesses that are committed to equal pay, or making the case that your money goes further in smaller communities speaks to women’s concerns about lower wages.
Illustrating your community’s commitment to family connections is also a relevant message for millennial women. The responsibility to care for aging parents often falls to women because of gender norms around emotional labor. As parents grow older, millennial women will be increasingly called upon to address their care. Conversely, if a woman has children, being close to her parents often provides a built-in support system and potential child care benefits.
Attracting young families back to your community has the added benefit of keeping their parents in place. In some communities we have seen the “Double Brain Drain” wherein retired grandparents move to be closer to their grandchildren. Bringing young families to town ensures the older populations don’t move away.
Social media marketing allows for very targeted ad campaigns. Facebook is a relatively inexpensive way to target specific populations, including new parents. And, even without paying for advertising, a viral campaign about how your town is family friendly might catch some eyes.
Young women have flocked to larger cities for a number of reasons – more things to do, better restaurants to try, more impressive scenery for their mental health (and instagram photos). But more often than not, what they are seeking is opportunity.
The more you can show women rising to success in your community, the more women will be interested in seeking opportunity there. If you look around and don’t see women owning businesses or in corporate leadership, ask yourself why not. Is there a need to start an incubator for women and minority owned companies? Do your corporate partners have a diversity program or mentor ship option? Once these programs get off the ground, highlight them in your marketing materials.
Be Authentic! Don’t try to play this marketing angle without actually having the programs to back it up. Promoting a false commitment to equality can backlash.
Their Health (Social, Emotional and Physical)
It’s not enough to have a yoga studio. Every city and town has a yoga studio. What you really need is free yoga. Preferably combined with alcohol.
Young women need to make friends and build a community to choose to make a place a home. But (as I covered in a past blog post) young people are not interested in boring business after hours networking events. Yoga is a high value activity – classes cost between $10-20, but if you can, encourage a local organization (think: library, nonprofits) to do free/donation based events. Adding a happy hour afterwards gives the chance to form relationships. Holding the class in an interesting space, like a museum, provides something to talk about. For extra credit, you can incorporate adorable baby animals.
Make sure to highlight health-oriented and social activities in your marketing plans to pique women’s interest and draw them to your community.
Men will follow
The title of this post is flatteringly adapted from our friend and collaborator David Feehan’s excellent book “Design Downtown for Women – Men Will Follow” which delves into how downtowns can be made into a better experience for women, which in turn, creates a better experience for all.
Men will follow. In the most literal sense, they will follow their partners/girlfriends/wives in their decision to move to your community. But on a greater scale, communities that attract women will grow stronger through more resilient community organizations, more diverse companies, and more tightly knit social networks, and thereby attract people of all ages and gender. The outcome of targeting your talent attraction and retention strategy on young women is a better value proposition for all those who might call your community home.
In mid-August, Fourth Economy and the Borough of Ford City played host to developers and investors for an Opportunity Tour.
Fourth Economy has been working with Ford City on their Comprehensive Plan, and this tour was designed to gauge interest and gain ideas for how development might take place on two sites in the community – the former site of Ford City High School and the riverfront that runs between the town and the Allegheny River.
The riverfront is currently home to several different uses – the 36 mile Armstrong Trail starts about a mile away from Ford City and runs the length of the town along the river. Also along the river are several manufacturing firms, some of which have located in the former home of Pittsburgh Plate Glass. At the north end of the riverfront site sits a few uninhabited buildings formerly housing the the Elgier toilet plant.
The Tour began at Klingensmith’s Drug Store, with local leaders greeting their out of town guests, and a quick overview of the comprehensive planning process and the proposed capital improvements plan. After a quick walk around the downtown, tour participants split into a caravan and drove to the southern end of the riverfront, then continued back up, making stops along the way, with property owners along the route to fill in information about each site.
On a clear August day, with a light wind blowing and the sun sparkling off the Allegheny river, tour participants brainstormed about the potential of marinas, riverfront restaurants and residences, and how to repurpose the existing industrial infrastructure.
The next stop was the former high school site, which offers a unique opportunity for development in the center of town.
Down the street from the former high school site, the group gathered at Spigot Brewery for a refreshing happy hour with food provided by Harper’s Grill, a recently opened restaurant that offers burgers made from grass-fed beef.
The tour capped off with a presentation at 10th Street Station, which was attended by residents, town leadership, and tour participants. First, the group heard from Leslie Oberholtzer of Codametrics, about the upcoming process that will result in a new zoning code for the Borough. Then, Jim Kumon of the Incremental Development Alliance explained how starting development on a small scale through rehabilitation of older buildings and spurring small businesses could change the town’s economy.
While the tour ended, Leslie and Jim returned to Ford City the next day to lead workshops in riverfront planning and activating spaces. During the first exercise, the group split into two and cut out different land uses to paste them on a map of the riverfront, an exercise that was useful for envisioning what the space might look in the future.
In the afternoon, Jim Kumon provided several examples of places that had activated uninhabited parts of their towns through markets or recreation, and how that lead to more investment and development. Participants then split into three groups, and brainstormed ideas for how to take the “next smallest step” for the riverfront, the high school site, and the downtown. The riverfront and downtown group went on field trips to survey their spaces, and returned with good ideas and information to share.
Springtime means conferences, and members of our team have been on the road. I have been back and forth to two conferences in Washington, D.C. in the last few months, attending the International Economic Development Council’s FED Forum in March, and the LOCUS Leadership Summit, in April. IEDC’s event was focused on economic development programs at the federal level, bringing in top economic developers throughout the county to interface with federal partners at the Economic Development Administration, Department of Labor, and other key partners. The LOCUS event brought together a coalition of real estate developers and investors who advocate for sustainable, equitable, walkable development in America’s metropolitan areas, as a program of Smart Growth America.
At both events, the topic of the hour was Opportunity Zones.
What Is the Opportunity Zones Program?
The Opportunity Zones program is a new federal economic development tax incentive designed to funnel private investment to low and moderate-income Census tracts across the U.S. The incentive provides Investors the opportunity to temporarily defer or avoid taxes on capital gains – profits from the sell of an investment – if those gains are reinvested in an Opportunity Fund benefitting low-income communities. These communities are designated as “Qualified Opportunity Zones (QOZ).” Each state will be allowed to designate up to 25% of the eligible tracts for Opportunity Zone status, with the final selections being made by the state’s governor. As of April, Census tracts in 18 states had been designated as Opportunity Zones. These are available for viewing on a map available through CDFI Fund.
The creation of this policy was lead by the Economic Innovation Group, who anticipates claims that this program unleashing will unleash $6 trillion in unrealized capital gains that can be leveraged in the neighborhoods that need it most.
How Does it Work?
According to Kenan Fikri, Director of Research at the Economic Innovation Group, who participated in a session at the FED Forum, Opportunity Zones can best be understood as a tax benefit akin to EB-5, or the Earned Income Tax Credit. In fact, rather than being housed in HUD or Department of Commerce, the IRS will be managing this program. This is due to the fact that investors will be drawn to Opportunity Zones primarily through the incentive of deferred capital gains tax. Here’s an example of how it works:
If an investor cashed out $1 million in stocks, they would owe 23.8% or $238,000,000 of that in taxes to the government. But if that $1 million were invested into an Opportunity Zone, taxes would be deferred for five years. If these funds stay invested for more than five years, then the tax bill would be decreased by 10% and if funds stayed in invested for more than seven years, the tax bill would be reduced by another 5%. Furthermore, whatever capital gains would be collected from investments made by Opportunity Funds in the Zone, there would be no capital gains tax levied.
Opportunity Funds are the vehicles through which investments can be made in these zones. According to the statute, Opportunity Funds will be set up as a partnership or corporation. They can fund investment in a domestic corporation, a partnership interest, or real property, so long as any of these have 90% of more of their holdings in an Opportunity Zone.
What Can You Do to Prepare?
At both conferences the feeling regarding Opportunity Zones was one of excitement but also uncertainty. One presenter at the LOCUS Summit likened this rollout period to the “wild west” because there is so little understood about what the outcomes will be. This is due to the speed at which the program was adopted and executed, as well the choice to have the program interred at the Department of Revenue. Here’s what you can do to prepare:
Stay Informed. There are significant questions about how the Opportunity Funds will be set up, with details about aspects of the program still ill-defined. The CDFI Fund has a ton of resources – updated in real time – to keep you abreast of all that you need to know. Check FAQ’s, explore a map of designated QOZ’s and other resources, here.
Think Smart About Outcomes. There is no doubt that Opportunity Zones will massively impact the investment levels in low to moderate census tracts. If your state got an extension, and is not one of the 18 who already has designated their tracts, it could be worth reviewing some of the criticism that has surrounded the first round of designees, and learning from this process.
Crowdsource. Going forward there also seems to be a role for community based financial institutions to step into the role of administering Opportunity Funds, or even incorporating crowd-sourcing to make these funds more community oriented. Community development stakeholders should keep an eye out for the public comment process to weigh in on how these funds can be best used for their purpose of benefiting low income populations.
My circle of friends includes a lot of small business owners. People who own bars, print shops, jewelry businesses, motorcycle shops, yoga studios, food trucks, cideries, dinner clubs, podcasts, and organic farms. And they all have one thing in common.
They do not want to come to your chamber event.
I actually go to a lot of chamber and industry events—and I have benefitted tremendously from attending networking happy hours, gaining mentors and connections. But I’m an economic developer, and I’m used to the small talk, the dress code, and the business card exchange. My friends who are creative, entrepreneurial types are not interested in putting themselves in environments where the main activity is “networking” and the food options range from crudité and ranch to cheese and crackers, (typically without a gluten free or vegan option, excluding celery.) Faced with the choice of running marketing campaigns from their phone while they watch season 4 of Parks and Rec, or interacting with people they don’t know, they’re going to pick yoga pants and the couch over awkward conversations.
They also haven’t heard about your event. Your networking lunch may be posted on your website and Facebook page, but if this target audience is not already interacting with you on social media, then it’s not reaching small business owners outside of your members.
Why is this a problem? Why does the kombucha brewer need to know about and attend Chamber events? Because she represents your next generation of businesses, and if she is not accessing the services offered by your chamber and other aligned organizations, then your economic development ecosystem is failing.
Chambers are vital partners in economic development efforts. They are the access point for businesses in the region, and through their networks, businesses gain access to resources offered by the supportive organizations that can guide them to success, such as financing and mentorship opportunities.
Unfortunately, if a small business owner is looking at your chamber website, seeing a board and staff lacking diversity, holding events at the country club, she will not see your organization as a space where she fits. And when her business encounters a setback, without a network of support, you risk losing her business and all that comes with it—the owner, the employees, and the young people who would potentially be attracted to your community by the enticing things to eat, do, and see. Today, talent is the most important factor in retaining and attracting business, and chambers cannot stand to ignore a subset of small businesses just because they are unconventional or much younger than other members.
Another reason that your “Business After Hours” may not be attracting young people is that networking as an activity has lost its spark. With their purchasing decisions, Millennials have shown that they value authenticity, connection, and community – witness the success of outdoor brand Patagonia, whose products and branding advocate for ecological sustainability – and whose recent Pittsburgh store opening featured designs by a local print shop. With creative engagement with the community, Patagonia attracts young people with common goals and ideals to come together in their space, for events beyond shopping. Trading business cards and small talk does not provide engagement with a community or authentic connections.
Business networking events don’t really make sense to people running small, creative businesses. Talking to a bunch of random people at a business networking event is not an effective solution for growing your business when technologies like LinkedIn and Google exist, making it easy to research specific contacts, understand their expertise, and reach out for a coffee date. Finally, for young business owners, their time outside of work is limited, and they want to spend it having quality experiences.
So, what can you do?
Economic development is a profession built on relationships. Stopping by the new businesses that are cropping up in your community and introducing yourself and your organization goes a long way. You might have to do a little bit of hunting – small businesses operating from their houses won’t have a storefront yet, but could be selling significant amounts of merchandise on Etsy or another online platform.
One way to get in touch with these producers is to keep up with farmers markets and maker fairs in your community. Maker fairs like Handmade Arcade feature hundreds of craft-based artists, makers, and producers; consider reaching out to the fair organizers to get an roster of local vendors whose booths you can visit.
Millennials have been programmed their whole lives. From Little League to dance lessons to student life activities in college, Millennials are really good at engaging in organized fun. Having an activity or event gives participants something to talk about and engage in together, creating an authentic connection. The description of Newaukee, a young professionals group in Milwaukee explains why programming is so essential to creating meaningful networking events for young people:
“…there had to be a way to socialize and explore the city with their peers that did not entail hauling a stack of business cards to a stuffy networking event. And they also believed in building genuine, long-lasting relationships – people need to meet on a common ground, doing something that they truly love together.”
Newaukee hosts incredible events for their members, billed on their website as Signature Experiences, such as Tournavation, a crowd-sourced idea generation platform that focuses on solving important issues that face the city of Milwaukee, and The Launch, a curated networking program featuring an exhibition of hiring companies and potential recruits on a boat.
Social Media Ready
I am not suggesting you join Snapchat, but I am suggesting your event be worthy of posting on social media. Food choices, drink selections and choice of venue contribute to the quality of the event and the attractiveness of images to be shared. It’s not just enough to have a hashtag – consider experiences that young people can engage with and share on social media, such as a custom backdrop, or providing a station to make signs about why they love their community.
Also – make sure your events are being shared with the young people you are trying to engage. Social media is great for this but working with local online communities, such as blogs or message boards, will put your event in front of new eyes. Don’t forget community bulletin boards at coffee shops or bars – if your event flier is posted alongside music and art shows, that’s a good sign.
Don’t Go It Alone
To get maximum turnout from young folks at your events, engage them in the planning process – and in your organization. Start with asking young people to get involved in planning your events – ask for help in where to have them, and how to promote them. As they become more involved, ask them to join your committees or boards, or help them to create their own, Chamber-supported organizations.
For example, the group Connecticut Young Professionals was started in 2013 by a young person who was new to the state and has grown to more than 1,400 people. They hold events such as a non-profit pitch nights. In an interview, founder Faris Virani explains how he tailors events and messaging to his membership:
Growing up in the digital age, millennials are used to getting information very efficiently, delivered quickly and with brevity. Our speakers realize that their job is almost to plant seeds, not necessarily convey all the information during your speech.
Create a Judgement Free Environment
Today’s young entrepreneurs are more likely to wear a hoodie, echoing Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, than a French cuff shirt reminiscent of Gordon Gekko. If you expect young people to wear different clothing to your event than what they wear to work every day, you’re doing it wrong. If you’re changing the venue and the programming of events, you might also consider specifying a dress code on your marketing – with friendly wording such as “Come as you are,” or Dress Code: Casual.
Take these suggestions and look at where your Chamber organization or networking program has room for growth. A good first step is to visit that brand new local brewery, coffee shop, or café and introduce yourself the old-fashioned way. Those authentic connections will take you a long way in connecting with the new generation of business owners.
Workforce is the underpinning of the three-legged stool of economic development. Without a strong workforce, there is no way to succeed at business attraction or retentionand no way to cultivate entrepreneurs. In economic development circles, the discussion around placemaking often centers on talent attraction. The thinking goes that top talent is attracted to places with high quality of life; businesses thrive on this talent and will expand and relocate to those places where talent flocks. So, in essence, places with a high quality of life are better for business.
A Change in Economic Forces
It used to be that a community’s economic success was dependent on some fixed competitive advantage such as access to natural resources or proclivity to a transportation network for moving goods. A good example is our firm’s hometown, Pittsburgh, located in an area rich in ore and coal to make steel and with access to three major rivers. Manufacturing created the economies of Pittsburgh and many other cities, but today, talent is the number one most important economic force. Sources from across the economic development spectrum tell us this. Nearly all the executives (95.1 percent) surveyed by Area Development in its 28th annual Corporate Survey rated availability of skilled labor as “very important” or “important” in their site selection factors. This factor is now considered more important than highway accessibility and labor costs, and certainly more important than incentives offered. We see this in Pittsburgh too, as companies such as Google and Facebook locating offices in town to be close to the graduates of the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University.
But talent is in short supply. Unemployment rates are falling, which means there are fewer people available for jobs. This is felt particularly hard in tech companies, which report a lack of talented workers with the skills needed for the rapidly evolving industry. Another benefit of attracting and retaining talented workers is that they are engines of innovation, whether from the inside of companies where they spearhead new ideas and spin off new divisions, or through entrepreneurship, forming their own enterprises and creating jobs. Attracting new talent is essential, and the best way to bring in high quality people is to offer a high quality of place.
Beyond the Baseline of Quality Markers
Quality of place means many things. A more traditional definition includes low crime rates, good housing stock, great schools, and local culture and recreation. But the cities and regions that are really pulling ahead in the race for talent understand that the baseline is no longer good enough. Much has been made of the “return to the city” and how millennials and baby boomers prefer a dense, walkable environment where they can live, work and play (to the point where urban planning professionals roll their eyes at the catchphrase). But the proof is in the evidence. Cities that provide living space in multi-use areas connected by transit and surrounded by quality recreation outlets are seeing their attraction of talent skyrocket.
Take Denver for example. The city has bet large on placemaking, from the $1 billion revitalization of the historic downtown Union Station to a new light rail system. These investments, coupled with outdoor amenities and copious sunshine, have contributed to Denver being named by the Brookings Foundation as second in the nation for attracting millennials. But it’s not just large cities that benefit economically from increased quality of life via placemaking. Regions around the U.S. are shifting their focus from business attraction to talent attraction. In Northeast Indiana, the focus of the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership is to attract new people to the area through improvements in downtowns, greenways and blue ways, arts and cultural assets, and education and industry through the Road to One Million plan (which Fourth Economy had a role in creating.)
Resiliency Means Quality of Place for All
Attracting and retaining talent is an essential component of economic development, but, it’s important to understand that placemaking does not mean only making places comfortable for highly skilled, highly paid employees. A well-designed place delivers quality of life to those at every age and income spectrum. Planning for all members of a population is what makes a place resilient and vibrant.
Providing affordable housing, especially in trendy inner-city neighborhoods, is a tough challenge and one that affects the workforce, especially for essential employees whose wages don’t begin to compare with highly paid tech workers. In places like New York, workers who make under $35,000 are increasingly being pushed out of formerly affordable neighborhoods to outer suburbs. When this happens, the financial and time cost of their commutes rise, cutting into already low wages. While particularly dire for service employees such as retail workers, this also affects teachers and police personnel.
From the placemaking perspective, increasing density leads to more options for housing across the spectrum, ideally situated in in-town neighborhoods that are walkable and served by transit. As the supply of housing increases in these desirable neighborhoods, the price decreases. One tactic to encourage denser development is to allow for “Missing Middle” housing to be developed. Missing Middle housing, a term coined by Opticos Design, is composed of a range of multi-unit or clustered housing types that are compatible in scale to single-family homes. Some examples include duplexes, carriage houses, townhouses, and accessory dwelling units. Allowing this type of development densifies neighborhoods and provides access to housing at a lower price point, without a significant disruption of neighborhood character.
Barriers to Small Scale Affordable Housing
Building Missing Middle housing is typically not undertaken by large developers, and therefore is built by property owners, small real estate developers, and community development corporations and financed by local banks. The margins of profit for Missing Middle housing are smaller so in order for these projects to be financially feasible, there must be a regulatory environment that permits these types of buildings. Most existing zoning codes separate housing types so that multi-family is not intermixed with single family and residential above retail is not allowed. This stunts Missing Middle housing by forcing projects to go through zoning hearings that extend the project timeline and cost to a point where construction is not feasible.
Allowing for small residential infill projects to be built not only provides more options for affordable housing, it allows property owners to benefit from rising housing costs, and alleviates increased property taxes. Of course, to truly provide benefit, increased density needs to be coupled with transit to access jobs and services.
A Connected Workforce
Placemaking is a term that can be misconstrued to simply mean making communities more beautiful. While placemaking tactics such as downtown development, street scaping, and encouraging traditionally affordable housing types does improve a community’s aesthetics, if done properly, placemaking can unlock significant economic value. Connected, vibrant communities with a multitude of housing and transportation options return the best value to inhabitants, creating places that workers are attached to and invested in.
The previous installment explored the role of placemaking in business retention and expansion as it improves the quality of life of a community and the marketability of a place. This installment considers how placemaking influences entrepreneurship and small business development.
Small Business Drives Jobs
Entrepreneurship is essential to a community’s economic dynamism. Small businesses diversify local economies, create local jobs, and increase residential and commercial development. Small businesses employed just over half of the private-sector workforce and created nearly two-thirds of net new jobs in the time period of 1993 – 2011. Furthermore, homegrown businesses are more likely to have strong roots that keep them located in a community compared to businesses that have been attracted from elsewhere.
One typical method of supporting small businesses is creating incubators – shared rental spaces that offer low-cost office amenities and, often, coaching, mentoring, and other types of support. Other ways of supporting entrepreneurs include creating small business centers, which serve as information hubs for entrepreneurs and local small businesses, and holding networking events, and connecting businesses to sources of funding.
Small Businesses Create Vitality
Small businesses also play an important role in creating unique places that enhance quality of life. Commerce in downtowns and neighborhoods is often driven by small businesses, whether retail establishments, bars and restaurants, or small companies occupying office space. These small businesses draw people into business districts and create vibrant, walkable neighborhoods that attract both residents and tourists.
Beautiful places and small businesses go hand in hand. Urbanist author Jane Jacobs wrote, “New ideas must use old buildings.” Older buildings, typically having more affordable rents, are often located in downtowns that are conducive to transit and as a critical mass of customers and office workers. The national Trust for Historic Preservation finds that cities with older, smaller buildings actually have higher density, more diversity, a greater number of small businesses and lots more entrepreneurial activity.
Footholds for Startups Activate Places
Small businesses and entrepreneurs thrive in walkable downtowns, but they can also create vibrancy in areas that could use a shot of revitalization. Creating temporary spaces like markets and kiosks allow for start-up businesses to test new ideas, while also providing an event to encourage potential to attend, therefore enlivening areas of a community that are in need of investment. The graphic below, from Thompson Placemaking, shows an incremental approach to building spaces for new businesses as part of a community revitalization strategy.
The graphic moves from easily implemented, temporary retail options to permanent, multi-use buildings. The tents in the first frame are seen at events such as farmers markets or holiday fairs. Generally, this level of retail is available to anyone for very little investment other than merchandise. Food trucks, trailers, pods and micro retail buildings represent the “missing middle” of retail outlets. These structures require some investment, either from the vendors themselves or from developers, but the risk is still quite low compared to signing a lease or purchasing a store. Small retail stores and mixed-use buildings require the most investment – from retailers, developers or property owners, and from the city that would benefit from their development.
Barriers to Incremental Placemaking
It is feasible that a business could grow from a tent to a trailer to a retail bay, increasing profits and employees at every step. Facilitating space for businesses at each level creates a pipeline of small businesses ready to expand into retail bays when they become vacant. Yet, in many places, regulation prevents small retail environments and harms small businesses.
For example, in New York City, food vendors must obtain a permit, but the number of applications is so high that the City is only issuing permits to licensed vendors already on the waiting list. According to a 2015 article in Eater, in the late 1970s and 80s, the number of food vending permits was reduced from 12,000 to 3,000 due to pressure from business interests and general civil unrest in the late 1970s. The article reports that this has led to existing permits being rented out for exorbitant prices on the black market, with many stories of food vendors being swindled out of permits and having to close their doors.
The Guardian profiled these challenges recently and pointed out that in San Francisco, where tech giants like Uber make billions by skirting taxi regulations, the permitting process for street vendors selling wares like fruit, beverages, and popsicles requires as much as $1,500 in application and licensing fees. Often, these vendors are immigrants who make less than $100 per day at their trade. Many have limited English proficiency, and many more lack capital to cover these startup costs.
How can Policymakers Help?
Obviously, requirements that protect the health of customers buying food are important, but legal processes that restrict small businesses unnecessarily are unfair. To help small businesses get started in informal retail environments, policy makers can do an audit of the systems that these businesses must go through with the goal of streamlining processes to make them more efficient and time-conscious. Furthermore, policy makers can examine zoning laws to understand if regulations that influence where vendors can operate are fair. If there are significant zoning regulations, it may be helpful to create something like a “Vending Overlay Zone” or other district where vending is accessible to small businesses. A focus on creating small business friendly communities often leads to better places and better quality of life.