Trump’s New Opportunity Zones Look Great for Investors

AP Photo/Julio Cortez

A man walks by a closed restaurant along Bergen Street in a so-called opportunity zone in Newark, New Jersey.

Like kids before a piñata, investors and real-estate developers have been lining up to cash in on a new suite of tax cuts for investments in low-income areas, known as “opportunity zones.” Now, with the release of much-anticipated guidelines by the Trump administration, the party can finally begin.

The opportunity zone program, one of the rare provisions in last year’s Republican tax overhaul to receive some Democratic support, is the latest spin on a decades-old policy intended to attract capital to economically distressed areas by offering a range of financial goodies, such as tax benefits and subsidies. With sufficiently lucrative incentives available, the theory goes, wealthy investors will happily put their dollars into small businesses, local infrastructure, and housing in areas otherwise starved of investment. 

Sounds like a win-win for all. Except it often isn’t. 

Past attempts to revitalize cash-strapped communities through this kind of investor largesse have struggled to ensure that the investments have actually benefited middle-class and low-income residents. Many financial institutions and developers used the breaks as merely another tax planning tool, investing in poor neighborhoods temporarily and then leaving or claiming huge gains on investments they would have made anyway—all while displacing poorer residents in or near gentrifying areas. 

In its set of proposed rules for opportunity zones released earlier this month, the Trump administration failed to offer a real fix to this set of problems. Instead, the Treasury Department rolled out an even more generous set of tax benefits than previously expected. 

Under the proposed regulations, any financial institution that invests in a qualified opportunity zone fund will be able to defer its capital-gains through 2026 for any unrelated investment. That could be the sale of a company or just hitting it big on the stock market. In addition, investors don’t have to pay any capital gains tax on profits made off investments made in opportunity zones held for more than 10 years.

The IRS is placing a lot of faith in wealthy investors to do the right thing here, offering them substantial freedom to profit without requiring any proof that their investments are actually developing the local community. 

As Tax Policy Center’s Steven Rosenthal explains in his analysis of the proposed rules: 

The IRS now offers much more flexibility. The IRS would allow the [opportunity zone] funds to take up to 31 months to invest in Zones. But investors could defer the tax on the gains they invested in these funds immediately—and could start the clock running to receive further tax benefits. 

The IRS would also permit investors to continue to claim tax benefits from the program until 2048, even though the [Tax Cuts and Jobs Act]sunsets the Opportunity Zone designations in 2028.

Problems of transparency and accountability plagued previous versions of the opportunity zone idea. The George W. Bush administration’s New Markets Tax Credit was found to be a bureaucratic mess in a review by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2014. 

The report’s authors found that “data on loan performance were incomplete” because reporting of certain information was optional. “As a result,” the authors wrote, “it is not possible to determine, at this time, the [New Markets Tax Credit] project failure rate with certainty.”

The Trump administration currently has no requirements in place for investors to report which areas they’re directing their money to or even what kind of businesses they invest in. That means there’s little to stop investors from pouring the bulk of their funds into already-gentrifying areas that would have attracted investment without any tax benefits to begin with. 

Worse yet, another IRS rule allows a business to qualify as a valid, tax-advantaged target for investment if at least 70 percent of its “tangible” property is located within an opportunity zone. This gives opportunity zone funds more room to navigate, but also opens the door to more funding being funneled away to wealthier regions where the other 30 percent of a qualifying business may be located.  

For areas to qualify as a opportunity zones, they must have a poverty rate of at least 20 percent or a median family income less than or equal to 80 percent of the area median income. Areas adjacent to low-income areas can also qualify as an opportunity zone, so long as the median income there is not more than 125 percent of the area median income.

Governors in all 50 states along with local officials in Washington, D.C., and five U.S. territories had until April 20 to nominate a list of opportunity zones. Commentators at the time stressed that fair geographic targeting would be vital for the success of the program. Picking the wrong regions for investment would move resources from areas most in need. 

The finalized list of nearly 9,000 opportunity zones was released in June. While most of the qualified zones selected represent areas genuinely in need of economic stimulus, some states did sneak in low-income areas, such as college towns, that shouldn’t be considered top priorities for investment. 

The opportunity zones program will come at fairly significant cost to the taxpayer. Lawmakers projected the program would cost a net $1.6 billion over a decade. But that was before the Treasury department made the tax breaks even more generous in their guidelines. 

Last month, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin predicted that as much as $100 billion in capital investment would go towards opportunity zones. That’s a hefty sum, to be sure—but who will be the prime beneficiary from those investments? 

Financial institutions like Goldman Sachs reportedly created their own opportunity zone fund just days after the GOP tax bill passed last year. Fundrise, a digital real estate investment platform, announced in July plans to raise $500 million by the end of 2019. Other early adopters are sure to be joined soon by a wave of  investors who know a good deal when they see one. Reports of rising sales prices and asking prices in designated opportunity zones have begun to proliferate. 

Indeed, there’s little doubt that investors and developers will win big from the opportunity zones program, as things stand now. How the poorest neighborhoods—the very places the tax cuts are meant to help—will make out is not nearly as clear. 

Tax Cuts for the rich. Deregulation for the powerful. Wage suppression for everyone else. These are the tenets of trickle-down economics, the conservatives’ age-old strategy for advantaging the interests of the rich and powerful over those of the middle class and poor. The articles in Trickle-Downers are devoted, first, to exposing and refuting these lies, but equally, to reminding Americans that these claims aren’t made because they are true. Rather, they are made because they are the most effective way elites have found to bully, confuse and intimidate middle- and working-class voters. Trickle-down claims are not real economics. They are negotiating strategies. Here at the Prospect, we hope to help you win that negotiation.

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