Guest view: How Opportunity Zones could impact Central Pa.

The Wolf administration identified 300 opportunity zones, or distressed areas where investors can get a tax break. - (Photo / COMMONWEALTH OF PA)

Opportunity Zones are being referred to as “real estate’s most exciting new investment vehicle,” but what are they and can they really live up to this title?

How this type of investment works and why it stands to be so beneficial is essentially this: capital gains are invested in Opportunity Zones, taxes are deferred, the basis is lowered, taxes are then paid in 2026 (at the same nominal value as in 2018), and after 2028 the Opportunity Zone holding can be sold with no capital gains tax due.

Better yet, there are very few restrictions on the properties in which one can invest. It’s estimated that there are $2.3 trillion worth of unrealized capital gains in the U.S. Even if only 15 percent of this is invested in Opportunity Zones, this will exceed the 2017 corporate income tax revenue and almost match the Medicaid spend of that same year.

The potential benefits don’t stop there. Opportunity Zones can also provide a tax deferral on gain that investors invest in a fund, and the elimination of gain in the new Opportunity Zone investment if it is held for more than 10 years.

This should paint a clearer picture as to why Opportunity Zones have real estate investors abuzz. To answer the most essential questions related to Opportunity Zones, and specifically how they stand to impact Central Pennsylvania real estate, Omni Realty has asked Silas Chamberlin to share his expertise and insight on this topic.

Silas Chamberlin is the vice president of economic and community development at York County Economic Alliance. Prior to joining YCEA in fall of 2018, he served as CEO of Downtown Inc. Chamberlin has also served as executive director of the Schuylkill River National Heritage Area, an organization promoting economic revitalization in five counties of southeastern Pennsylvania. And he has held leadership positions in the non-profit sector and state government.

Throughout his career, Chamberlin has focused on helping communities leverage their unique assets to create opportunities for economic development and a higher-quality of life.

Omni: How many census tracts in York County were approved for the Opportunity Zone program? And where?

Silas Chamberlin: York County has five designated tracts. All tracts are located in the City of York and are the tracts which encompass most of the city’s brownfield sites. Tracts in Hanover and Wrightsville were eligible for designation, but were not selected by the state.

Omni: Specifically, how will this program benefit the Greater York Area and how soon do you expect to see an initial impact?

SC: Opportunity Zones will attract additional investment to qualified projects in our five opportunity zones. The tax break should help draw investors’ attention to projects that have not benefited from private investment in the past. YCEA is a working partner to help identify viable projects within the zones to market to Qualified Opportunity Fund investors. We are also vetting the creation of local and regional funds focused on the city’s zones.

In theory, we could see funds begin investing in qualified projects at any time. Opportunity Zones are intentionally driven by the free market and individual investment decisions, so it is difficult to tell how much investment will end up in York. Observers at the national level have noted that there may be more private capital available than viable projects, so York should certainly position itself to take full advantage.

Omni: Are the tax breaks provided through this program enough to incentivize private investors and spur activity?

SC: The short answer is yes. But it would be inaccurate to view Opportunity Zones as a panacea that will turn vacant buildings into viable investment opportunities overnight. The most competitive projects will be those that are already viable without Opportunity Zone funds, but would benefit from additional investment.

Unlike New Markets Tax Credits or other popular programs, Opportunity Fund investments are unlikely to subsidize a project because the project must be able to grow in value and return an investment to the fund. YCEA’s strategy is to identify viable projects within Opportunity Zones and then use the designation to attract investors’ attention. We see this as yet another tool in our economic development financing toolbox.

Omni: Are there any drawbacks to the Opportunity Zone program?

SC: Opportunity Zones rely on a self-certification process for creating a fund, which means that investors have lots of autonomy. This also means that economic development organizations and municipalities may not always be aware of investments being made in their zones. Because the zones are distressed areas by definition, there is a higher risk that outside investment could change neighborhoods and business districts without any local engagement or controls. There are potential controls that could help guide development in Opportunity Zones—such as zoning overlays—but these tools are not yet well developed, especially in smaller cities.

Finally, there is the risk for disappointment. Opportunity Zones absolutely provide another tool to attract investment, but there is a risk in promoting them as transformational and raising the hopes of residents and developers that untapped capital will begin flowing into the census tracts that need it the most. While there is reason to be hopeful, the reality of matching qualified investors to viable projects may narrow the scope and impact of the tax break.

The bottom line

Submitted

Experts predict that after an initial wave of Opportunity Zone fund offerings in early 2019, there may be a pause that coincides with the issuance of additional regulations during which market participants will evaluate fund and project structures. After that, barring the rise of general economic headwinds, it should be full steam ahead for Opportunity Zone funds moving forward.

From a real estate perspective, Opportunity Zone projects need to be viewed as development projects because the requirement is to create new property or substantially improve property.

To reemphasize Chamberlin’s point, there is surely reason to be hopeful that Opportunity Zones will flow capital into census tracts that need it the most. But we must remain cautiously optimistic about how quickly and substantially this capital will come about. Much like anything related to real estate, and especially real estate investment, most outcomes remain at the mercy of the market and ever-changing government regulations.

Mike Kushner is the owner of Lower Paxton Township-based Omni Realty Group.

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