Anu Varadharajan & Michelle Thompson: Academia’s Role in Opportunity Zones

Are colleges and universities an untapped resource for Opportunity Zone development?

Anu Varadharajan is a tax professor at Tulane University. Dr. Michelle Thompson is a planning and urban studies professor at the University of New Orleans and data fellow at the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth.

Click the play button below to listen to my conversation with Anu and Michelle.

Episode Highlights

  • Opportunity Zone investment trends in New Orleans.
  • The need for academia to become more involved in Opportunity Zone development.
  • How studying tax return data can determine OZ program efficacy.
  • Metrics that could be used to most effectively determine the profile of a community.
  • How the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth is unlocking anonymized and aggregated sales transaction data at a census tract level that can help illustrate local trends and needs.
  • A recap of the University of New Orleans OZ study conducted in the spring and a preview of the study that they’re planning in the fall.
  • The challenge of information fragmentation at the federal and local level.

Featured on This Episode

Industry Spotlight: Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth

MasterCard Center for Inclusive Growth

The Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth advances sustainable and equitable economic growth and financial inclusion around the world. Established as an independent subsidiary of Mastercard, the Center activates the company’s core assets to catalyze action on inclusive growth through: research, data philanthropy, programs and engagement.

Learn more about the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth

About the Opportunity Zones Podcast

Hosted by OpportunityDb.com founder Jimmy Atkinson, the Opportunity Zones Podcast features guest interviews from fund managers, advisors, policymakers, tax professionals, and other foremost experts in opportunity zones.

Show Transcript

Jimmy: Welcome to the Opportunity Zones Podcast. I’m your host, Jimmy Atkinson. Colleges and universities are an untapped resource for many opportunity zone projects all over the country. And here to tell us more about that today are two college professors located in New Orleans, Louisiana. Anu Varadharajan is a tax professor at Tulane University and Dr. Michelle Thompson is a planning and urban studies professor at the University of New Orleans and data fellow at the MasterCard Center for Inclusive Growth. Anu and Michelle, thank you for joining me and welcome to the show.

Anu: Good morning, Jimmy. Thank you for having us.

Michelle: Thanks so much, Jimmy. We really appreciate it.

Jimmy: Absolutely. Glad to have both of you here with me today. So, let’s talk about New Orleans for a moment to start us off. How many opportunity zones are there in New Orleans, first of all, and what can you tell us about them?

Anu: So, there are 25 designated qualified opportunity zones in Orleans Parish and there are seven in the neighboring Parish of Jefferson. So together, I would say if you think about New Orleans, 32 opportunity zones. And they run the gamut of some that are contiguous too low-income areas and some that are located in, say, the central business district even.

Michelle: And this is Michelle, so you’ll understand the differences in our voices. You know, in terms of the opportunity zones, there 150 in Louisiana and approximately 8,700 across the United States. So, the 25 that are in Louisiana, that’s a significant number compared to others around the country. And I think this discussion will highlight some of the things that we’ve learned early on about those opportunity zones, which in the case of New Orleans, these opportunity zones are census tracts in their synonymous neighborhood areas.

Jimmy: Good. And what are both of you hearing from the New Orleans community, you know, within the last year, I suppose since these zones have been designated?

Anu: So, I’ll jump in first. Initially, with the first set of regulations, since it was written primarily as a real estate-oriented set of incentives, I think a lot of the initial discussion was targeted towards just redevelopment of certain areas. With the second traunch of regulations where they allowed investments in operating businesses, the discussions have definitely kicked up, but that also then highlighted how much more work needs to be done in terms of educating businesses that are located within the qualified opportunity zones, and also businesses that are thinking of moving into or might, you know, have previously not thought off expanding into some of these areas, now it becomes a viable, attractive business opportunity. So there’s a lot of work that needs to be done in terms of educating the business owners as well to say, “This is an untapped resource that you have not thought about in terms of capital investment.” So, that still needs to be done.

Michelle: And I would say that in terms of education, inclusive of the businesses, is the community. That’s where my focus and my work generally is, is there was a lot of information maybe at the, you know, for businesses and certainly at the municipality, but many community members and organizations were not aware that these designations were being put in place. The community outreach was very limited. And so, when I’ve talked to many of the development non-profit developers or small business owners, this information is completely new and they’re not really sure where to start. So, I think that from the top down from the city, there’s been a bit of silence and I think they’re starting to draw up some information. But that’s part of why we’re here. I think that being educators, we can provide that information not only in the campus bringing it forward, but also to help the community to understand what these zones are and what they can do to influence the policy.

Jimmy: Yeah, I think it’s interesting that you bring up awareness of the program. I think that’s actually been a really big challenge here. Some communities were very much aware of the program before the zones were designated and they were able to put together a task force and petition their governor’s office on their community’s behalf. Other communities are kind of behind the curve. I still get emails, you know, probably one or two a week asking me, “Hey, how can I make my neighborhood an opportunity zone?” And I have to explain to them that that ship has sailed, that you’re about a year behind there. What was New Orleans involvement in designating opportunity zones? How much interaction do they have with the state government or if you’re aware of that, I’d love to get any insight you may have of how involved the city was with the state when it came time to designate these zones.

Michelle: Well, I can speak to that just having spoken with, and you can certainly follow up with, Bob Rivers who is the Executive Director of the City Planning Commission, who I sat down with, in spring of 2019 when I was trying to understand the history of how these were developed. And from what I was told, the City Planning Commission, certainly the mayor in that transition at the time, Mayor Cantrell, came up with a list of actually more than 25 zones, which were shared amongst I would say the planning community, maybe to some extent the city councilors. But I don’t believe that there was… You know, certainly, I do know there weren’t a lot of community or meetings and the engagement was limited. But that list did go to the governor as the process was designed, and the governor and their staff looked over the list and the list did change from what was recommended and then was sent to the U.S. Treasury. And I’m in agreement, many people still believe that they’re going to be more zones or incorporated zones as you just stated, but the zones are existing and are going to remain those designated 25.

Jimmy: That’s right. I want to back up for a second and get a little bit more of your background story on both of you. Anu, you can start first. Tell me a little bit about your background, what you’re doing today, and how you got to that point in your career.

Anu: So, I am a self-professed tax geek. I love all things taxes. My entire career has been in tax. I used to work for PricewaterhouseCoopers, well, my initial phase of my career, and then moved into academia for this current phase of my career. And with respect to opportunity zones when the TCJA came out in December 2017, I was just then reading through the various provisions, was a little bit intrigued about it. I saw some stuff come across on the Louisiana Economic Development, a website where they had certain tax incentives. And I actually had two students who heard about it in a finance class and came over to me and said, “What do you know about opportunity zones? And we want to get involved or learn more.”

And so, I started working with them and, you know, as young folks are these days, they were all enthusiastic and wanted to set up their own fund and so on and so forth. They moved onto other things because real life took over. But I stayed with it, got more and more involved in trying to understand how it was going to work, and just started to speak at various events and met a lot more people. And that’s how I met Michelle at one of the…where I was a panelist and Michelle after the talk came up to me and said, “Hey, let’s talk some more.” And here we are, eight weeks later.

Jimmy: And Michelle, you have a different background. You’re not the tax geek that Anu is. Is that right? Tell me a little bit about yourself.

Michelle: No. So, I really come from practice as well, which is interesting. I didn’t really think about that. I knew we had a similar background in history. I was a certified real estate appraiser but I also would teach classes because I liked sharing that knowledge and also the information with community. So I started in Boston and I saw that there was a disparity in the assessment, which ultimately led to I felt higher taxes for communities in Boston. Fast forward, I continued that work and research and ended up when I was at Cornell being on a team post-Katrina to come down to help with a neighborhood plan. So, it was right around 2007, 2008. The issues of collecting data, sharing it with the city, trying to come up with better plans for redevelopment is what I came to do and help with and then was given the opportunity to start teaching at UNO and at that point came up with a plan.

It was a development model called public and private participation geographic information systems. And the idea and the theory is that the university with our technology can help a community to be that technical arm and collect information that’s needed and desired and use public information to come up with a plan or to evaluate a situation or a system. So, that’s what I teach. That’s what I’ve been doing since post-Katrina focused on blight. But it wasn’t until the beginning of the semester of spring that at the same time I was working with the Mastercard Center when the term qualified opportunity zone came forward. So it was very new to me, but I knew that there was some data, local data and information, and the need for community engagement. So, I brought together my interest, trying to teach students, and to gather information to try to apply that theory and see how it would work with understanding qualified opportunity zones a little bit better.

Jimmy: Excellent. And so, both of you are obviously in academia now.

Michelle: Yes.

Jimmy: So, do you think there’s a need for your academic peers to become more engaged with opportunity zone investing and opportunity zone development, and if so, how should they do so? How can they become more involved?

Anu: Okay. I’ll go first. Absolutely. I think that’s the answer. First of all, there are…just put aside the whole. Where is the academic institution located? Actually, there are, I think, about a thousand academic institutions that are actually located within an opportunity zone. And there’s a lot of talk about trying to work with them because of their location within the zone. But I also feel that the academic institution is an integral part of the community. And to the extent that you’re able to get faculty and students interested in working and being interwoven into the fabric of the community that they are, it’s going to produce so much more in terms of a robust community working with opportunity zones and for the betterment of the entire community.

Michelle: Absolutely. And I think that, you know, fundamentally, there’s a disconnect. I mean, New Orleans, you know, the University of New Orleans is considered the city university. But there’s still a big disconnect between what is provided by the university, what can be provided, because we’re just talking about, you know, we are the planning department in, but there’s so many…but qualified opportunity zones affect so much more, you know, social issues, historic issues, obviously, tax issues. So, I think that as a university unit and not just the planning department that I sit in, we can provide information, and also, you know, jokingly free resources. There’s a lot of students. But what that really means is that the students who we have will have the opportunity to learn more about their community, engage with the community, and provide information to be able to go on the ground and look at the conditions.

That is why I think, in general, the city working collaboratively to collect information, to be able to see what areas need to be fixed or what areas are doing well, collecting photographs, I mean, some basic fundamental information. It’s not possible for the city to manage that. But to go back to your question in terms of universities in general across the country, there is so much information in data technology, resources that universities can bring. But fundamentally, I believe that they should be involved because they can be that voice, they can be that interpreter between what the city wants, between what the community wants and also to try to understand this big data. It’s very overwhelming. It’s huge. And how do we get our arms around it and bring it down and use it in an effective way at the community level?

Anu: And I would add to that is, you know, when you put that many smart people together in a room, you’re only going to come up with better solutions and better ways of doing things and looking at a problem from, you know, a variety of different points of views. And the other question is why not? Everybody is resource-constrained. The state only has so much resources available. The city only has so much resources available. So, if you’re able to reach out to the university with its wide variety of various departments, like Michelle was saying, rope in your finance faculty to say, “Hey, help me put together a pitch book.”

Rope in your accounting and tax faculty to say, “What are the tax incentives that we can…” All states have tax incentives that can be layered on top of qualified opportunity zones. And I think, Jimmy, you had, actually, a podcast a while ago about combining historic tax credits with opportunity zones. So that’s one component, but all states have other unique tax incentives that they could layer on. So, and then bringing in the econ-department, the urban planning department, whether it’s, you know, dealing with coastal issues. Every city has its own unique set of priorities and reaching out to the academic institutions in and around them, it’s a great resource that is currently left unpacked.

Jimmy: Very good. Yeah. I did have a Rich Rogers on podcast episode number nine. We talked about twinning historic tax credits with opportunity zones. And yeah, there’s several other types of tax benefits that can work together with opportunity zones, both on the state and at the federal level. I want to talk a little bit about data collection and reporting. That’s become a big issue in the opportunity zone space. In your view, what kind of data should be tracked? What kind of data should be collected? And what evaluation methods do you think we should use to measure the effectiveness of the opportunity zones program?

Anu: I come from a tax background. So, one of the things that I’ve been thinking about, which has not been done to date in terms of determining whether the opportunity zone has been, was it successful in doing what it was supposed to do, which is basically try to alleviate the income inequalities and, you know, help neighborhoods and areas within the country develop further. And a way to look at that would be to look at the tax return data that is collected. The IRS collects all sorts of information from the 1040s that we file as individual taxpayers. So, if you were to look at, for example, a particular census tract and say, “What was the average taxable income for that census tract in 2017 before the QOZs were implemented?”

And if we were to track certain data points, so, for example, what was the age of the taxpayer? What was the income brackets that they belong, that they fell into? What was the trajectory? How has that grown? Have people been migrating in or out? Because that is a very constant topic in terms of gentrification or development without displacement, and so on and so forth. And also to try and understand the income sources of the population that lives in these census tracts. If we’re able to figure out all of the parameters that we want to track today and say, “Okay, in 2017, this was the baseline and then 2026,” or, wait, five years, right?

By 2026 would be good timeline since a lot of other things happen with respect to QOZs in 2026 and say, “How has it actually shifted? Has it shifted the entire community in the right direction?” That I think would be a stellar way to say, “Yes, it did what it was supposed to do.” And on the flip side, we can also look at it and say, “Okay, to the extent that the tax base has grown as a government revenue because we pay taxes on it, has that also grown?” And that would give you a good insight into what was the net cost of these opportunity zones.

Jimmy: So that’s big data from the IRS. That’s publicly available data?

Anu: There are…Yes, the IRS collects a lot of data, but it’s right now not at the census tract level. They leave it at a zip code level or a county level because some of these census tracts are so small that they will not be able to release it. Then you’ll be able to identify, you know, individual taxpayers. But I believe that from a government perspective or if you were able to get certain institutions behind this, then you should be able to, from a tracking perspective, say, “Let’s track all this data,” but control who has access to it.

Jimmy: Well, that’s a great idea. And Michelle, you have a slightly different perspective on things I believe. What do you think we should do? What type of data should we be tracking and what evaluation methods should be used to measure the program?

Michelle: Certainly. And I’m going to answer it in two different ways and let’s just say two different hats. And I think what Anu is saying, and what you’ve alluded to, is there’s a lot of public data. When we say public data, it could be the tax information. Certainly, at the community, the city level, the neighborhood level, there’s, you know, crime information. That is definitely going to be looked at in terms of investment potential. Business starts, changes over times in terms of just education, health. So, I think that kind of information that’s being collected at the community level for the community is really this kind of a profile of the neighborhood. Some of that information, depending upon whether you’re an investor or a community or the city who wants to draw an investment, we’re using all the same information. But getting access to the information obviously has been the biggest problem. And we’re duplicating, replicating. There’s been so many services that are being paid for, and in my mind unnecessarily, to try to get at what does the zone look like.

So what has been happening in New Orleans, what I was trying to do, even in the spring, was to come up with a template of information where community, where businesses, can download for free from the city level to the state level and how to aggregate that information using geographic information systems. But still, that’s going to be too big for many folks. And for those who have the money, they’re going to, you know, develop a market study and they’re going to do the same thing, only from a private perspective. So, for the university and the community, they’re still, I want to say stuck with just that public information. But what I’ve been doing with Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth, which is a really exciting I hate to say opportunity, but a really exciting new way of bringing in data is that we’re able to now get information at the census tract level.

And, again, lower than the zip code but not at the neighborhood level because of privacy issues to look at sales transactions data that really would help make some decisions about what are the trends, what are the needs, because one of the complaints and one of the concerns are, if information about what the sales transactions are, maybe that’s going to target neighborhoods or it’s going to exclude neighborhoods with the information. But the project that have been working on is going to give information on, for example, the livable Claiborne Corridor and show the level of business starts. And that’s what’s going to be available in short order is to look at the change in a public policy, which was in the Claiborne Corridor Cultural Innovation District, and before that overlay, that tax overlay, was available and after. And what we’re able to find with that anonymized and aggregated data is that there was a significant increase in sales in and near that particular zone.

So, I think what I’m suggesting is that we have the neighborhood data. We can overlay it with, I will say Anu’s tax information. We can also bring it up and out, not only to the city level, the state level but nationally. So, that’s what also the Mastercard Center is going to be doing, putting together a scorecard. There are many others who are trying to do this. And I know HUD is doing this with some of their work, is to try to say, “Nationally, we’ve got, you know, information on 8,700 communities. How can we bring this together to show, you know, nationwide what the changes were?” Well, that’s going to take a big machine and a lot of data. So I think there are going to be some tools out there, but hopefully, you’ll hear about the scorecard that includes public and private data that will be available to the community through the center pro-bono for free.

Jimmy: And that data from the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth is likely to be available, we think, toward the end of July or early August. Is that correct?

Michelle: Yeah. The data and insights. It basically is going to be a summary of not only the information that’s available from Mastercard and in terms of the anonymized and aggregated sales, but we’re also going to start looking specifically at the qualified opportunity zones. We’ve already taken a look already with… In the spring of 2019 students adopted a zone and we’re able to collect information on that particular zone, and then we’re going to add that information from Mastercard. So they have, I believe, a more complete picture on both public and private data. So, when I say it’s a community but also investors, so hopefully, they’ll be able to look a little bit faster and quicker at what’s going on in the zone instead of just looking at historical information.

Jimmy: Oh yeah. That’s great. And I’ll be sure to link to that data from the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth in today’s show notes page for this episode. You can find those show notes at opportunitydb.com/podcast. So, Michelle, yeah, you touched upon this next question already. You had some students in your Introduction to Neighborhood Planning class at the University of New Orleans complete a study earlier this year, this spring semester, and they looked at New Orleans opportunity zones. Can you summarize the study and what its goals were, and if you have plans to conduct future studies?

Michelle: Yes. And so, the nexus of this study was…the idea behind the study was to provide a service-learning opportunity to HousingNOLA who we’ve worked with and who’s interested not just in housing issues but in comprehensive life issues, what’s happening in each neighborhood and how to evaluate it. So, initially, the work was to try to identify what the zone was to learn about the tax laws. And this was really outside of what we typically would provide in an introductory class. And even though I was a certified real estate appraiser prior to my work at the university and I understand some things about the market, this was a bit different. We wanted to bring in information and help students learn the language of the opportunity zones. I mean, the idea of what is a capital gains, that is not what you’re typically taught in a planning class.

So, I think what’s really wonderful about what was taught and what will be taught is that the students learn the language. We’re working on a “live project.” Again, typically I’m looking back and to see what happened versus being able to sit in and monitor and support research that’s going forward. So, that booklet, that guide, was to identify the zones, summarize how information was gathered, and to go into different zones. We went into Algiers and New Orleans East and a couple of the other zones so they can provide a profile and go into the neighborhoods and take photographs and learn how to use the tools but also provide step-by-step guides for anyone, specifically those citizen scientists, who want to follow up the work. And that’s where the kind of work, that kind of class and the service-learning and guide can be provided to my colleagues who are part of the Association for Collegiate Schools of Planning and other planning organizations.

But what’s exciting that Anu and I are starting to talk about is a way that Tulane and UNO can come together in the fall. I already have a Land-use Planning class that I want to now take the template for what we did in the spring and have the…Now, I have now approximately 24 students that potentially we can really adopt each zone and work with the city. I’ve already started talking with the City Planning Commission, the Department of Transportation, and NOLA Business Alliance and say, “I’m going to have a number of students out there who can actually go and give you that on-the-ground pictures and analysis and do an assessment of the conditions. How can we work together?” And I’ll, you know, turn it over to Anu in terms of what we think we can do together and, you know, in terms of those class opportunities that don’t typically happen.

Anu: Right. One of the unique components of an education at Tulane is the service-learning component. That is a fabric of our education here at Tulane. And the students have to participate in a service-learning class. And one of the things that I’ve been toying about and had some initial discussions with academic leadership here is to come up with possible ways in which students at Tulane can use the service-learning requirements to work with the city. And when I met Michelle, it was a natural, again, a meeting of the minds and just to go back to what can happen when you, you know, put your resources together and to say, “Okay, here you have two institutions, which are very different in their backgrounds and so on and so forth but still coming together to work in the community for the betterment of the community.” So, I’m really hopeful that we will be able to come up with certain classes or different types of coursework that we can put together to work in this space.

Jimmy: I think it’s great what you two are doing. And I wish you nothing but the best of luck and, but Michelle, you might want to be careful. You might end up turning some of your urban planning students into the tax geeks like Anu.

Michelle: Well, if they’re anything like Anu, I will say I was completely…you know, and she knows this, but it was just amazing to me as, again, a former real estate appraiser. I really…you know, my head is really into numbers, but just to sit and watch her talk about collaboration and cooperation and, you know, this is about community at the same time was really quite astonishing.

Anu: Thank you so much, Michelle. You’re very kind.

Jimmy: A question I’ll pose to both of you now. What has changed in New Orleans since it’s opportunity zones were designated last year? Just anecdotally, are you seeing a rush of real estate development or new business starts yet or what are you seeing?

Anu: So, I’ll go first. With the traunch of regulations that have come up clearing the way for investment into operating businesses, there’s definitely a little bit more activity. Initially, when people thought it was just going to be a real estate deal, I think they were a little bit more cautious in where they were going to be investing, how much money they were going to be putting, so on and so forth. So, some deals we are aware. Again, a lot of these deals are not public information, so I’m sure there’s activity that’s going on and there are some that have come to the forefront to say “Yes, we do see that certain deals have been completed or are in the process of being completed.” With the upcoming deadline at the end of this, since we’re recording in June, the end of June would be the date by which all capital gains from 2018 need to be funded or put into qualified opportunity zones funds to shield them from current tax and get the deferral.

So that’s happening right now, which means that the next big push is going to happen over the next six months to get all of these funds deployed. So I’m sure there’s going to be a flurry of activity in the deployment. And I feel that New Orleans as a city and the various constituents here need to really go after the money. This squeaky wheel gets all the attention. So, a lot of people, when I say New Orleans, when I go to conferences and I say New Orleans and opportunity zones, I can see the wheels turning because, well, the vast majority of people, when I say New Orleans, they think Mardi Gras. They think Jazz Fest. They think parties, Bourbon Street. You know, it’s a good time. Laissez la bon temps rouler!

But we also have opportunity zones and thriving businesses here. So, there’s a lot of work that still needs to be done in terms of attracting the funds not only from within New Orleans but the other funds that are, you know, sitting all over the United States. I mean, that’s a big thing about the opportunity zone funds, which is a diversification that it inherently provides you. You could be sitting in Colorado and still be investing in San Francisco, New York, New Orleans, Austin, Arkansas, Arizona, New Mexico, you name it, that you could invest it and kind of diversify your portfolio. So, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done, I think.

Michelle: You know, I am going to follow up with some of the work that I know about, you know, outside of New Orleans and then I’ll talk a little bit about inside. I know that in February there was a qualified opportunity zone summit and that, you know, was being created by Accelerator for America, which was started by Mayor Garcetti. And the idea was to bring together, you know, businesses, investors, cities across the country to try to help cities, you know, market their particular neighborhoods, and New Orleans wasn’t there. And when I came back I thought, “Well, what’s going on? You know, we’re not ready. You know, was there any interest?” Of course, there’s a lot, like Anu said, in the background, people trying to figure, you know, what’s going out. There was a change in administration.

I think that that it looks like New Orleans is slowly moving forward. But I think that what I’ve heard from Josh Cox, who’s one of the senior advisors to the mayor, is that they aren’t going to just rush and develop, you know, a plan or a portfolio. They are being methodical. And one of those meetings that was to gain more information just happened, I think May 13th, where NOLA Business Alliance invited a number of investors, local and national, to look at different areas in the city to talk about some of their concerns that were raised. I wasn’t at that meeting but subsequently spoke with one of the coordinators of the meeting. And some of the issues that have come up are, you know, infrastructure and what kind of resources are available, what types of tax credits. Even, you know, some folks hadn’t even realized we even have Hollywood, you know, tax credits.

So, I think there’s a lot of information that still needs to be put together. But in terms of, you know, investment, additional information, I’m going to go back to what I’ve been working on, is that the more information that we can provide and that’s what I’m hoping we’ll be able to share a full story with details and, you know, within the next month on investment potential, and that certainly will come through information that shows that there is a lot of activity. How do we show that… That’s through that anonymized and aggregated Mastercard data in neighborhoods, in qualified opportunity zones where folks may not necessarily think that’s the place to invest. So, I think there’s just more information that’s needed and more to come. And, you know, Anu and I are here to help with that and, hopefully, others will too.

Anu: Yeah. The one thing I do want to add, there is a lot of people working to disseminate information on opportunity zones. Sometimes I feel it’s very fragmented because it seems like this week somebody’s doing a seminar on opportunity zones. Next week somebody else is doing a seminar on opportunity zones. Oftentimes, you hear about it after the fact when I would say, “Hey, I would’ve really liked to have gone for that.” So, I think as a community we also need to be very wary of, sharing. I mean, when stuff comes across my desk or my emails, I share it to five different people. And I say, “You may already know this, but if you don’t, here’s something that’s happening. If you’re interested, you know, add it to your calendar and so on and so forth.” So, I think that continued effort to share and share alike would also help everybody. And this is not just to New Orleans specifically. I’m sure this is across the country.

Michelle: And I just want to do one more follow-up, which just came to mind is absolutely at the federal level, you know, Anu, you mentioned, and it is true that, so there’s information that has been provided by the federal government but there has been very, very limited information. And so, there are some neighborhood organizations who are building affordable housing that I’ve spoken to recently and given them information on how to establish their own qualified opportunity zone fund. That’s not my area of expertise, but just being able to share that information, it’s not readily accessible.

But there is more information coming, not necessarily out of HUD, but certainly, out of the U.S. census, there’s an innovation group that’s, you know, trying to share more information. But, once again, you’ve got to be on a lot of Listservs, or folks like Anu or myself or, you know, cross-sharing information. That’s got to be done a lot better. But right now, it’s not. And I certainly caution people who have to pay for any type of, you know, QOZ info session when there’s a lot of information they can just download for free.

Jimmy: Good. Well, thank you for sharing those insights there. Putting aside the fragmentation of information and the difficulty in obtaining it, what other frustrations or challenges would the two of you like to share regarding opportunity zones? Now is your chance to get some of those frustrations off your chest for our listeners.

Michelle: Well, I’m going to go on this one. I am very frustrated with the idea that, you know… And this is what I said to my students as we started. Looking at this, is the lack of community engagement, the lack of I would say transparency from the start. There’s nothing we can do about that now. But if this is truly, if the goal of QOZs is really to help impact, improve levels of playing field of people, businesses, in these QOZs, then all of them should have fit the criteria. There are QOZs that absolutely are not based upon the low income, you know, the definition of a low-income area that really needs the kind of support that we hope the QOZs get. So, I don’t want to as they say step into the political realm, but I think that there’s a definitely a feeling and a frustration that this is the G word. The G word’s coming, gentrification. So, I’ll pause there. And I think that’s the biggest frustration. And I think I got it out. Thank you.

Jimmy: And, Anu, how about you?

Anu: For me, it stems more, again, because I have my tax hat on. There’s a lot of unanswered questions. I had a conversation this morning with one of my friends who said, “Hey, talk to me about that follow-up by opportunity zones.” And we were talking about it. And as I’m walking him through those scenarios, I’ve got lots of tax technical questions to say, “Okay, wait. Does this rule apply first? Does the other rule apply first? What is the applicable tax rate going to be in seven years, eight years?” So some of it is for me, as a tax professional, the lack of guidance, but that’s coming. We know that’s coming. My biggest fear or frustration would be how quickly can we get the community involved in the opportunity zones and for them to take a little bit of ownership, for these small businesses to step up and basically say, “Hey, you know what? I’m thinking of expanding. Talk to me. Where do I go?”

And the other frustration that I sort of see a little bit coming up is the dollar values. You know, a lot of people are talking about billions of dollars of investments. That’s fantastic. I mean, you’re talking about really making huge differences. But sometimes, you also need to step back and think about sort of a micro amount. You know, maybe it’s $100,000. Maybe it’s $1 million. And oftentimes, some of these big funds will typically say, “Well, that’s too small for us to deal with.” But there is a huge need for those kinds of micro-investments as well. So, that space needs to get a little bit more clarity and get more players involved to say, “Hey, we’re going to go in and, you know, think about some micro amounts and see how that works.”

Jimmy: I think that would be a great topic of discussion for a future episode of this podcast possibly, micro-investing in opportunity zones. What $100,000 can do, what $1 million can do, especially in some other more rural areas of the country. I think that can go a long way.

Anu: And I’ll tell you why. A lot of the businesses that are operating in those smaller opportunity zones and really impoverished zones, the businesses are not…they can’t even fathom what $1 million can do for their businesses. They’re really thinking working capital. I need…I know $100,000. A lot of them have, depending if they’re minority-owned businesses… Their mindset of, you know, equity versus debt, they’ve never been exposed to alternative types of funding. So, there’s a whole other world out there that’s not just Series A, Series B and, you know, billions of dollar deals that people are talking about. And the education and the way you approach those businesses and the way you would have to structure those deals and their time horizons and even the language that you speak to those people, you’ve got to be able to sit across the kitchen table from some of these people and say, “Here’s how this program can help you.”

And then I think, also, it goes back to the community collaboration. If you can take finance students from, you know, the universities, graduate students or even undergraduates who are interested in understanding impact investing, for example, or ESG or minority-owned businesses and define it any way you want. But if you’re able to say, “You, I want you to go and approach these businesses,” and just have a conversation with them and say, “This is how this opportunity zone incentive can help you and help you grow with this community,” then you are changing the landscape one business owner at a time.

Michelle: And that’s what I was going to jump in. I’d say, so, you know, again, I keep saying, I think I found my sister’s soul, you know, tax person here because that’s exactly the kind of work that needs to be across the aisle. It’s not about planning versus tax. It’s not about business versus not, but the kind of project, the kind of work that’s being done and will be done in the city of New Orleans, especially along the livable Claiborne Corridor or the Claiborne Innovation District, that’s what they’re trying to do right now. They’re really talking about bringing in food trucks, vendors, folks who are, you know, selling their jewelry. It’s not even the $100,000. It’s the $10,000.

How do they access it? How do they show that they do have…will have that track record that can be invested in and how do they get their eyes on? So I think that’s where the, you know, in terms of that collaboration, being able to prop up those businesses, in the fall that’s what we’re going to be doing is looking at those areas, businesses in the QOZs, along with looking at kind of the other sustainable issues about housing and transportation and putting that all together. And hopefully, that information together will have investors not just focused on their ROI or return on investment, but think about that social investment in the social capital that you can’t put a dollar on.

Jimmy: Yeah, I wish you the best luck with that study you’re doing in the fall. And I hope you’re right. Hope it does open up the mindset of the investors to consider some social returns as well. Before we go, before we end our conversation today, can both of you tell us where we can go to learn more about you and what you’re working on?

Michelle: You can find me at the Tulane University website. I’m at the AB Freeman School of Business at Tulane University and I have a faculty page there. So, and I’m on LinkedIn as well. So, that’s where you find me.

Anu: Great. Then for myself, I’m in the Department of Planning and Urban Studies at the University of New Orleans and I have a selected works page that has information on our opportunity zone website information. We are now going to be expanding and so the other project will be with Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth. And you could put in my name and then opportunity zone.

Jimmy: Excellent. Well, for our listeners out there, I’ll have show notes for this episode on the opportunity zones database website at opportunitydb.com/podcast. And you’ll find links there for the faculty webpages for Anu and Michelle, as well as the data from the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth. And I’ll also include a link to Michelle’s study that she and her students conducted at the University of New Orleans last spring. Anu and Michelle, thank you so much for joining me on the podcast today. It was a pleasure speaking with both of you. And to both of you, I’d like to wish you, laissez la bon temps rouler, and have a wonderful rest of the day.

Anu: Thank you so much, Jimmy.

Michelle: Really, really appreciate it. And to you as well. À toute à l’heure!

Jimmy: Thank you.

Jimmy Atkinson

Jimmy Atkinson

Hi, I'm Jimmy Atkinson... I founded OpportunityDb in August 2018. I'm a veteran Internet entrepreneur with a background in economics and Web marketing. I previously founded ETFdb.com. These days, I am passionate about impact investing and tax-advantaged investment opportunities. At the crossroads of these two ideals is the opportunity zones program, a place-based tax policy intended to economically transform some of the poorest areas of the United States with new real estate and business development.

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