Last year’s tax reform created a new Opportunity Zone program, which offers qualifying investors certain tax incentives aimed to spur investment in economically distressed areas. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has predicted that the Opportunity Zone program will create $100 billion in private capital that will be invested in designated opportunity zones.
The IRS released the much anticipated proposed regulations for the Opportunity Zone program in October ( REG-115420-18). The proposed rules provide “clarity and some good news for taxpayers,” Micheal Bernier, partner at Ernst & Young’s National Tax practice, told Wolters Kluwer in an emailed statement.
The Opportunity Zone program was created under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act ( P.L. 115-97) enacted in December 2017. The TCJA added Code Secs. 1400Z-1 and 1400Z-2, which include procedural rules for designating opportunity zones and provisions allowing qualifying taxpayers to elect certain income tax benefits. Although not a single Democrat voted for the TCJA, the Opportunity Zone program was based on a bipartisan bill sponsored by Sens. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and Cory Booker, D-N.J. The program “creates tax incentives to help stimulate the flow of capital into communities that need opportunity the most,” Cory Booker said in an October 29 tweet.
Generally, the proposed rules have been considered on Capitol Hill as leaning favorably toward taxpayers. However, stakeholders and practitioners are reporting that many questions remain. To that end, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), housed under the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), has announced that a second package of regulations is expected to be completed by the end of this year.
Qualified Opportunity Funds
The TCJA’s Opportunity Zone program generally established the following investor tax benefits:
- a temporary tax deferral for capital gains realized on the sale of appreciated assets and reinvested within 180 days in a qualified opportunity fund (QOF);
- the elimination of up to 10 or 15 percent of the tax on the capital gain that is invested in the QOF and held between five and seven years; and
- the permanent exclusion of tax when exiting a qualified opportunity fund investment held for at least 10 years.
“Most importantly, taxpayers can use the fund as collateral. This was a surprise and is important,” Bernier told Wolters Kluwer. “The type of investments made by Opportunity Funds do have some strings attached, which are designed to make sure the investments are creating economic activity in the Opportunity Zones, not just buying and holding existing assets,” he added. “Under an Opportunity Zone structure, if you refinance the property and take cash out of the Opportunity Zone fund, that would be a disposition and would trigger the gain, thus reducing the amount of investment that is eligible for the 10-year deferral.”
Real Estate Investors
Additionally, real estate investors stand to receive significant tax advantages through the Opportunity Zone program, according to Bernier.
“As collateral, it is possible to borrow against the Opportunity Zone fund, a very important option for real estate investors,” he said. “There are a few extra hurdles to using that strategy, but it’s valuable in the real estate world and would be the rough equivalent of a cash-out refinancing.”
Additionally, Bernier noted the generous latitude that Treasury and the IRS used in defining certain statutory terms. For example, “‘substantially all’ of owned or leased assets was defined as 70 percent