Dozens of low-income neighborhoods across the Bay Area are bracing for a potential rush of new development after being marked as “opportunity zones” — a new federal designation that suddenly makes them prime targets for investors but also opens them up to gentrification and worries of rising rent prices.
President Donald Trump’s 2017 tax law offers significant tax breaks to investors who fund a new development or new business in designated low-income neighborhoods, including most of downtown San Jose, large swaths of West and East Oakland and San Francisco’s Hunter’s Point and the Outer Mission. The rules around the program have taken shape in recent months, and interested investors and developers are lining up, setting the stage for a possible building boom.
“There’s going to be so many people looking to make things happen in these areas that they’re going to find that projects that never would have been done will be done,” said developer Erik Hayden, president of Urban Catalyst, which launched earlier this year with the specific purpose of building in opportunity zones. Hayden’s team already is planning six projects in downtown San Jose.
Under the new program, investors can avoid paying federal capital gains taxes for seven years if they invest in an “opportunity fund,” which backs projects in the newly created zones. If they invest this year, they’ll pay 15 percent less tax at the end of that seven-year period. And if they hold onto the opportunity zone investment for 10 years, they’ll pay no tax on the profit. Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed adding additional state tax incentives for investments in opportunity zones.
To qualify as an opportunity zone, a neighborhood must have a poverty rate of at least 20 percent or a median family income that doesn’t exceed 80 percent of the regional or statewide median income. Using that criteria, California officials selected nearly 900 of the state’s roughly 8,000 census tracts for the program.
The goal is to spur job growth and economic opportunities in disenfranchised areas that developers tend to overlook. But critics worry the program instead may drive up rents in low-income neighborhoods and push poor residents out. The program doesn’t require developers to build affordable housing or provide any other safeguards against displacement.
“What I’m afraid of is the watering down of Black culture and legacy in East Oakland,” said Marquita Price, urban and regional planning officer for The East Oakland Collective, a civic engagement, economic empowerment and homelessness services organization.
Price is exploring how her community can start its own opportunity fund and use the federal tax breaks to bring affordable housing and other needed amenities to East Oakland.
In San Jose, 11 census tracts are designated opportunity zones, including most of downtown, North San Jose, East San Jose and Little Portugal. The per capita income of residents inside those zones is $30,151, compared to $40,275 in the city at large, according to the San Jose Office of Economic Development. And 67 percent of residents in San Jose opportunity zones are renters, compared to 43 percent in the entire city.
There’s evidence the federal program already is pushing real estate prices up. The average sales price of a home in an opportunity zone rose 25 percent this year over the year before, according to a nation-wide Zillow analysis. By contrast, the average sale price rose just 8 percent in low-income neighborhoods that were eligible for opportunity zone status but were not selected.
North Bay qualified opportunity zones
Of the 879 qualified opportunity zones with tax breaks and other incentives for property investors, 21 of those zones are in North Bay counties (interactive map).
Source: California Department of Finance