What are opportunity zones?

This is Chapter 3 of The Ultimate Guide to Opportunity Zone Investing

The Investing in Opportunity Act makes a big promise to the low-income communities that have been designated opportunity zones. But will the promises of economic growth (without too much resident displacement) come to fruition?

An opportunity zone is a low-income census tract that has been nominated by its state governor and certified by the Treasury Department. The nation’s opportunity zones stand poised to receive a huge influx of investment, given the enormous tax incentives that the new legislation has created.

Opportunity zone facts and figures

On June 14, 2018, the U.S. Treasury and IRS finalized certification of the opportunity zones. In total, 8,762 census tracts were certified as qualified opportunity zones. These zones are located in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and all five inhabited overseas territories.

Opportunity Zones Map
A total of 8,762 census tracts were certified as qualified opportunity zones.

A total of 8,532 out of 31,864 census tracts defined as low-income were designated as opportunity zones. An additional 230 eligible contiguous tracts (not defined as low-income) were designated to bring the total to 8,762.

Nearly 35 million Americans live in these zones, per 2015 American Community Survey data. The average poverty rate in the opportunity zones is 32 percent, compared to 17 percent for the average census tract.

Here’s the breakdown by state:

Location Designated Opportunity Zones Low-Income Tracts Non-LIC Contiguous Tracts
Alabama 158 153 5
Alaska 25 25 0
American Samoa 16 16 0
Arizona 168 160 8
Arkansas 85 83 2
California 879 871 8
Colorado 126 119 7
Connecticut 72 71 1
Delaware 25 24 1
Florida 427 427 0
Georgia 260 260 0
Guam 25 23 2
Hawaii 25 23 2
Idaho 28 26 2
Illinois 327 327 0
Indiana 156 153 3
Iowa 62 61 1
Kansas 74 70 4
Kentucky 144 139 5
Louisiana 150 145 5
Maine 32 30 2
Maryland 149 145 4
Massachusetts 138 137 1
Michigan 288 283 5
Minnesota 128 127 1
Mississippi 100 95 5
Missouri 161 153 8
Montana 25 25 0
Nebraska 44 43 1
Nevada 61 60 1
New Hampshire 27 27 0
New Jersey 169 169 0
New Mexico 63 59 4
New York 514 497 17
North Carolina 252 241 11
North Dakota 25 25 0
Northern Mariana Islands 20 20 0
Ohio 320 317 3
Oklahoma 117 114 3
Oregon 86 81 5
Pennsylvania 300 289 11
Puerto Rico 861 835 26
Rhode Island 25 25 0
South Carolina 135 128 7
South Dakota 25 23 2
Tennessee 176 170 6
Texas 628 628 0
Utah 46 46 0
Vermont 25 23 2
Virgin Islands 14 13 1
Virginia 212 207 5
Washington 139 132 7
Washington DC 25 25 0
West Virginia 55 52 3
Wisconsin 120 120 0
Wyoming 25 24 1

Opportunity zone ideals

By design, the opportunity zones program targets under-served low-income communities on the margins — places where private investment would be highly catalytic. The very worst-off places in the nation are just not capable of attractive private investment. Conversely, communities already on an upswing would be a waste of program dollars.

As Annie Lowery puts it in The Atlantic, “Opportunity zones are meant to be Goldilocks-type places: not so distressed that no amount of government incentive would induce private money to them, not distressed but gentrifying and thus already seeing a flood of private money coming in.”

How to invest in opportunity zones

Taxpayers wishing to invest in opportunity zones are required to deploy capital gains in qualified opportunity zone funds. OZ funds are structured as corporations or partnerships and invest in qualified opportunity zone property.

Opportunity zone property

OZ property can be one of two things — 1) an opportunity zone business; or 2) opportunity zone business property. An opportunity zone business can be structured as either a corporation or a partnership and must hold at least 90 percent of its assets in OZ property. Opportunity zone business property is tangible property used in trade or business of a qualified opportunity fund.

Opportunity zone property is explained in more detail in Chapter 4: What are qualified opportunity funds?

Opportunity zones vs. NMTC

The most recent place-based economic policy is the New Markets Tax Credit program. Much of the opportunity zones regulatory language is borrowed from the NMTC program, but there are a few substantial differences.

Program Mechanics

Each program was developed to incentivize capital investment in under-served areas of the country. But there are key differences in the mechanics of how this goal is achieved.

U.S. Treasury Building
The U.S. Treasury department oversees both the NMTC and OZ programs.

Under the NMTC program, a taxpayer invests cash in a special financial intermediary termed a Community Development Entity (CDE), which then invests in businesses within a zone. Each CDE must be pre-approved by the Treasury Department and is required to provide governance rights to community representatives.

Under the opportunity zones program, there is much less oversight. A taxpayer invests capital gains into qualified opportunity zone funds, which then invests in businesses within a zone. But unlike CDEs, which must be pre-approved by Treasury, OZ funds simply self-certify. There is zero pre-approval process and no requirement to provide governance rights to community representatives.

Tax Benefit

The tax benefit differs substantially. In the NMTC program, an annual tax credit equal to the amount invested in a Community Development Entity (CDE) is granted to the taxpayer. But the taxpayer would still owe tax on any gains incurred by the CDE.

Under the opportunity zones program, investors can deploy capital gains from any asset into a qualified opportunity zone fund. There are three tax benefits of this program: 1) deferral of capital gains tax until December 31, 2026; 2) reduction of capital gains tax due; 3) elimination of tax due on capital gains from opportunity zones investments.

Financial Impact

The NMTC allocates $3.5 billion in qualified equity investments annually. Conversely, the opportunity zones program has no limit to the amount of investment that can be made. Because of this, some believe that the opportunity zones program will dwarf the NMTC in terms of financial impact.

EIG’s fomer CEO Steve Glickman has called the opportunity zones program “the biggest economic development program in U.S. history.” And Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin believes there will be “over $100 billion of private capital” invested in opportunity zones.

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Chapter 4: What are qualified opportunity funds?