BY: AIF STAFF
Created as part of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, Opportunity Zones are a poverty-fighting tool designed to stimulate job creation, investment, and economic development in distressed neighborhoods. These nearly 8,800 census “zones” are found in all 50 states, ranging from very rural to very urban areas, and the law provides tax incentives for long-term investments that will ultimately benefit these communities and those residing there.
The American Idea Foundation has convened panel discussions with legislators, investors, and academics to discuss how Opportunity Zones can spur community development and help fight poverty as these projects begin to get off the ground. The Foundation has also profiled successful initiatives underway in Opportunity Zones like Erie, Pennsylvania, where private-sector investors have teamed with local leaders and businesses to reinvigorate some of the city’s poorest Zip Codes. Similar promise has been seen in communities as diverse from Provo, Utah to Baltimore, Maryland.
While the tax incentives provided through Opportunity Zones have started to bear fruit, former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and the American Idea Foundation believe that additional reforms and changes should be made so the program meets legislators’ original intent.
As Speaker Ryan has said, because of reconciliation rules related to the consideration of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, lawmakers were unable to get all of the desired accountability and transparency tools, among other things, in the 2017 legislation. Thus, for Opportunity Zones to reach their full potential, it is imperative that the federal government continue to make modifications. As the Foundation works with policymakers to make legislative improvements to rules around Opportunity Zones, there are also regulations being promulgated of great importance to these areas and those interested in investing in these communities.
This is why the American Idea Foundation joined a diverse coalition of stakeholders in sending a letter to Ann Misback, the Secretary to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve, focused on expanding the access and eligibility of Community Reinvestment Act tax credits for those working in Opportunity Zones.
The letter offers a series of comments in the hope that regulators will provide additional clarity and transparency about the activities and projects in low-and-moderate income communities that are potentially eligible for tax credits from both Opportunity Zone legislation and the Community Reinvestment Act. With greater clarity and information, more investors and financial institutions will hopefully be comfortable in providing capital to these areas of the country that badly need it.
The entire letter is available here and some of the comments are summarized below.
Natural Overlap between Community Reinvestment Act & Opportunity Zone Goals
As the letter notes, both the Opportunity Zone legislation and the Community Reinvestment Act are designed to benefit low-income communities and their residents. Both are intended to tackle persistent poverty, and as such, the impact of the Community Reinvestment Act and Opportunity Zones would be “maximized by providing eligibility for investments in both programs.”
Because of the similarities in how low-income communities are defined in Opportunity Zone legislation and the Community Reinvestment Act — not to mention that both are aimed at providing long-term, patient capital, the letter requests that regulators consider providing Community Reinvestment Act credits for additional Opportunity Zone investments that benefit low- and moderate-income communities.
Further, the letter calls for the Federal Reserve to explicitly include “examples of activities in low- and moderate-income communities that would qualify for credits under the revitalization and stabilization component of community development.” Given the logical overlap between Community Reinvestment Act and Opportunity Zones, the Federal Reserve should strive to identify activities that would allow investors, institutions, and community organizations to be eligible for both credits.
To Maximize Community Reinvestment Act & Opportunity Zone Activities, Provide Illustrative Examples
To ensure that only deserving investments in Opportunity Zones are eligible for potential Community Reinvestment Act credits, the Opportunity Zone Coalition letter calls on the Federal Reserve to provide an illustrative list of qualifying Opportunity Zone activities that may be eligible for the Community Reinvestment Act credits. Because there is uncertainty over what community development activities may qualify for Community Reinvestment Act credits, financial institutions and investors may be hesitant to engage in Opportunity Zone projects.
The letter suggests that when the Federal Reserve approves an activity for Community Reinvestment Act purposes for one institution, it should make this information public so other institutions and investors can determine (with full information) whether to undertake similar investment activities in other Opportunity Zones. The letter outlines a few examples of activities that could be presumed to benefit low- and moderate-income communities and also comply with Community Reinvestment Act requirements:
- Qualified opportunity fund investment that finances construction of a grocery store in an LMI Opportunity Zone.
- Qualified opportunity fund investment that finances construction of a new manufacturing facility that creates jobs for local residents in an Opportunity Zone that is also an LMI census tract.
- Qualified opportunity fund investment that finances the construction or renovation of facilities oriented toward serving low-income children, such as charter schools, day care centers, and early childhood centers in LMI Opportunity Zones.
- Qualified opportunity fund investment that finances the construction of affordable residential apartments in an Opportunity Zone that is an LMI census tract in which at least 20 percent of the units will be offered at median rents that do not exceed 30 percent of 100 percent of the area median income.
Providing examples that are eligible for additional credits, like the ones above, would provide investors and financial institutions with the certainty and confidence necessary to lend capital to projects in these low- and moderate-income areas that are hungry for economic growth.
The letter also calls for the Federal Reserve to develop a mechanism by which interested stakeholders can submit examples of potential activities that could qualify for Community Reinvestment Act credits in Opportunity Zones. This is a simple but important suggestion to ensure that those interested in investing in these areas are able to determine their eligibility for credits at the outset.
Maintain Incentives for Community Development Investments
The final comments in the letter raise a concern with the proposed idea to “combine community development loans and investments under one subtest.” The Opportunity Zone Coalition believes this might decrease, not increase community development levels going forward. The letter notes that by “measuring loans and equity investments together, banks would be disincentivized to engage in equity investments to meet their Community Reinvestment Act requirements.” Because equity investments have higher capital requirements, banks may opt to just make loans.
This letter, which details the natural overlap between the aims of the Community Reinvestment Act and Opportunity Zone legislation, suggests a few common-sense ways that the Federal Reserve can provide clarity, transparency, and additional information to potential investors, community leaders, and financial institutions. These simple steps — of outlining examples of activities that would qualify for Community Reinvestment Act and Opportunity Zone credits, of providing illustrative examples, and of maintaining incentives for banks to pursue community development projects – will hopefully attract additional interest and investment in these areas. This increased interest and investment will then benefit the residents of these areas over the long-term.
This letter is just the latest example of stakeholders raising awareness and working to expand the potential impact of the tax benefits available through Opportunity Zones. At a June 2020 event in Columbia, South Carolina, Senator Tim Scott and HUD Secretary Ben Carson met with local bankers and community leaders to discuss how some activities in Opportunity Zones may be eligible for credit under the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency’s (OCC) new Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) rule.
These types of events and the correspondence from the Opportunity Zone Coalition to the Federal Reserve will hopefully ensure that individuals in Opportunity Zones, particularly those who are low- and moderate- income, realize the benefits of this law and that it expands economic opportunities in areas that need it most.