What’s the Buzz in Washington? Opportunity Zones

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.

Additional Resources:

Analyzing Opportunity Zone Nominations and What States Should Do Next

Guiding Principles for Opportunity Zones