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Developers Aren't Reporting How They're Using Tax Incentives Meant for Low-Income Areas

The "opportunity zones" program, established in Trump's 2017 tax bill, might be fueling gentrification and luxury developments.
President Donald Trump signs an executive order in December of 2018 to establish the White House Opportunity and Revitalization Council to oversee the opportunity zones program.

President Donald Trump signs an executive order in December of 2018 to establish the White House Opportunity and Revitalization Council to oversee the opportunity zones program.

A new Hyatt hotel in what has been labeled one of Los Angeles' "hippest" areas. Luxury apartments next to Denver's new state-of-the-art concert venue. A private equity firm's residential, retail, and office development in one of Atlanta's most rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods.

Across the country, development plans are beginning to take shape in "opportunity zones," a creation of President Donald Trump's 2017 tax bill that promises to use tax incentives to draw development to disinvested communities. Under the bill, states were required to designate opportunity zones in "low-income communities," or certain adjacent areas, but the early plans seem to confirm widespread concerns that the program will not benefit communities but rather developers, who can save millions of dollars on developments in gentrifying areas that they likely would have built anyway. A study published last year by the Urban Institute, a non-profit research organization, found that more than a quarter of the zones selected by states as "opportunity zones" already had high levels of investment. Additionally, the tax bill sets no requirement that projects benefit the community or include affordable housing.

While investor buzz about opportunity zones has mounted quickly, news of actual development has been slower to emerge—the few examples that have come to light are the exception. Many developers have been hesitant to make definite plans, awaiting further guidelines from the Department of the Treasury on project eligibility. But another factor, of great concern to advocates‚ is that there's just no way to know what's happening inside opportunity zones: Missing from both the legislation and Treasury regulations are any requirements for developers to report information about projects built using the incentives.

"We don't know where the projects are, what kind of projects they are, who's investing, who's benefiting," says Flora Arabo, national senior director of state and local policy at Enterprise Community Partners, an affordable housing non-profit. "There are probably all kinds of projects closing in all kinds of places that we don't know about."

Among the projects that have surfaced, some have been promoted by developers themselves (mostly affordable housing groups eager to use the incentive for good, and to model how others can too). But others have been of a far less benevolent sort: ProPublica this month revealed Under Armour Chief Executive Officer Kevin Plank's plan to build an office, hotel, and apartment complex near downtown Baltimore using opportunity zone funds. The census tract is not low-income and was only eligible to be an opportunity zone because of a mapping error.

Earlier proposals for the opportunity zones program included at least some reporting requirements. The Investing in Opportunity Act, introduced by Senators Cory Booker (D–New Jersey) and Tim Scott (R–South Carolina) in 2017, proposed basic oversight of investments in opportunity zones by the Treasury, as well as an assessment of changes in economic indicators like income or job growth. But when the bill was quietly folded into the tax overhaul, the reporting requirements disappeared.

Even for those who have tracked the bill closely, the reporting process remains opaque. "This bill was thrown together so incredibly quickly—there weren't hearings on it, these types of questions weren't fleshed out in the way they should have been, so a lot of how this was put together remains a mystery," says Carl Davis, research director at the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a non-partisan think tank. Davis says we can't be sure how intentional the omission of reporting requirements was. But, at the very least, he has little doubt that it was "useful to them not to drag out the debate and to jam through the legislation as quickly as possible before folks could voice their concerns."

The lack of reporting requirements, like many other facets of Trump's tax overhaul, effectively guarantees handsome profits for developers. With neither an obligation to report on the project nor a requirement for community benefit, developers have every incentive to make investments that would create the highest returns: those in gentrifying areas that are already profitable to develop in. Community benefits, proponents of the incentive promise, will trickle down.

"It's absolutely ludicrous that the federal government is spending tens of billions of dollars, if not more, to incentivize private investment and not on the other side of the token saying, 'We need to know what these investments are,'" says Brady Meixell, a researcher at the Urban Institute. "If we're going to be providing tax breaks to these investors, they should at the bare minimum be able to answer the questions: who, what, when, where, and how much."

The lack of transparency is unprecedented for an incentive of this size. For example, a similar program, New Markets Tax Credit, a federal incentive rolled out in 2000 likewise directed at encouraging development in low-income areas, but with far more stringent eligibility qualifications, requires developers to report to the Community Development Financial Institutions Fund, an agency of the Department of the Treasury. Some advocates of greater transparency in opportunity zones suggest that the CDFI Fund would be an apt watchdog for this new incentive as well.

In the year and a half since the tax bill's swift passage, community development advocates have consistently pushed for such oversight and regulation. In May, Senators Booker and Scott introduced legislation that would establish requirements similar to the ones stipulated in their initial bill, which has stalled on the senate floor. The Treasury has also entertained the possibility of introducing such requirements, publishing a request for public input on the issue.

But many advocates of greater transparency remain pessimistic. Olugbenga Ajilore, a senior economist at the Center for American Progress, notes that the Trump administration's reticence to introduce requirements reveals the administration's lack of commitment to the purported beneficiaries of the program. "The fact that a year and a half later there are still no reporting requirements [shows] this legislation is not about the community," he says.

Even if the requirements proposed by Booker and Scott were enacted, Ajilore adds, it wouldn't be nearly strong enough protection against gentrification and displacement. By tracking changes in economic indicators in an opportunity zone, such reporting could obscure who is benefiting or losing out: Positive indicators such as lower poverty rates, for example, could just as easily reflect the existing residents' benefit from a new development as their displacement by it. And further, any reporting requirement would be just that—a requirement to report investment behavior, not to change it.

As developers await further guidance from Treasury on eligible projects, it's too early to say for sure whom exactly the funds will benefit. But whether with opportunity zones or any other piece of Trump's deregulation agenda, the beneficiaries of a lack of transparency is clear.