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Why The Rest Of 2019 Will Be Crucial For Opportunity Zone Development

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Despite his location in one of the country's hottest real estate markets, Urban Catalyst Managing Partner Erik Hayden employed a wait-and-see approach to San Jose's opportunity zones.

Even after having set up Silicon Valley's only multi-asset fund dedicated to designated properties, he waited.

As Hayden recognizes, stories similar to his occurred in markets across the country, with investors claiming a lack of clarity stalling any kind of large-scale benefits opportunity zone, which proponents promised would come to distressed communities. 

"It was confusion and a slow rollout that has made it so that funds haven't met their fundraising goal expectations," Hayden said.

Urban Catalyst Opportunity Zone fund
Urban Catalyst's Erik Hayden

Now, investors expect a turnaround in the second half of 2019. The most recent data from research company Reonomy show a dwindling share of investments going to the country's 8,700 OZs, but those numbers only go up to March, or just before the Treasury Department's second round of guidelines were released

Since then, OZ fundraisers say they have seen enough of a boost in investment activity since April to suggest the program could start working after all.

Since May, Urban Catalyst has acquired several properties in downtown San Jose on its way to a handful more, Hayden said. He takes his and others' easier time getting funds as a sign the program hit its full stride after April.

"I've been a developer for the last 15 years all over the Bay Area, with projects in at least half of its cities," Hayden said. "Now, I've formed Urban Catalyst and am focused on doing 10 projects in an opportunity zone."

A sense of urgency also makes it more likely opportunity zone funding could markedly increase by the end of 2019.

"The jury is still out," Reonomy's Sam Viskovich said. "Q3 and Q4 of this year are going to be really telling quarters as to the effect of the legislation."

Even though Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who co-sponsored the bill that created opportunity zones, is drafting legislation to push back the deadline, an investor still currently has only until Dec. 31, 2019, to invest and get the entire 15% tax reduction from the program.

Scott has also threatened to kill the program if it bypasses the distressed communities it was meant to buoy, putting early results since the April set of guidelines under new scrutiny. One deadline meant to attract profits from partnerships and hedge funds has already passed.

Chicago Skyline
Chicago skyline

Investors with 2018 capital gains from either version had until June 29 to pass them into a Qualified Opportunity Zone Fund, according to Craig Bernstein of OPZ Bernstein, a Washington, D.C.-based private equity fund focused on opportunity zones.

That leaves Q2 as when many of those profits could have been invested. Still, Bernstein says he has seen firsthand more capital being drawn into opportunity zones since April. 

"There are still billions of dollars to be harvested, specifically from highly appreciated equities and fixed-income portfolios," Bernstein told Bisnow. "And there's still plenty of time for these investors to get involved in the program."

Formed in January through a joint venture between The Bernstein Cos. and OPZ Capital, OPZ Bernstein has received ample investor interest in New York City, Los Angeles, Houston and Chicago, Bernstein said. 

"When the confusion was cleared up in April, we saw more investment," Hayden said. "But when we're out there talking with folks, a lot of times we're still just doing education, the ABCs."

Chicago may be starting to benefit from the opportunity zone program, and is seeing increased investment in its designated zones, according to Reonomy.

Other cities, like New York, have faced scrutiny for a plethora of opportunity zones inhabited by the wealthy

US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin discusses the opportunity zone program during a press conference in April at the White House.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin discusses the opportunity zone program during a press conference at the White House.

Indeed, it is examples like New York's that could be the program's most serious long-term problem. Whatever increased funding may ensue from the new guidelines, only a small percentage will likely do something transformative within opportunity zones, experts said. Fund managers are still seeking only what they deem the best investment opportunities.

"Over time, we'll see the top 10% of opportunity zones across the country will end up capturing 80% of the capital," Bernstein said. "Our primary goal is to continue evaluating areas that have already experienced significant capital investment that we believe will continue for the foreseeable future."

While Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin predicted $100B in additional investment from the program less than a year ago, both Hayden and Bernstein think expectations among some of the program's champions can get much too high.

"Most people think the program is a magic pill to increase job growth, employment levels and appreciation within every zone in the country," Bernstein said. "To believe that's the case is a fallacy."