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Practitioner’s Corner: Proposed IRS Rules on Opportunity Zones Provide Clarity, But Gaps Remain

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Practitioner’s Corner: Proposed IRS Rules on Opportunity Zones Provide Clarity, But Gaps Remain

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.

Opportunity Zones

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 [in the proposed regulations]; this could have been as high as 90 percent or more,” Bernier said. Further, “the time allowance for working capital is set at 30 months to deal with cash. This helps in getting the development done,” he added.

Too Flexible?

The proposed regulations for the Opportunity Zone program may be too flexible, according to an October article released by the liberal-leaning Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center (TPC). “Neither the statute nor the guidance ensure that the investments will benefit low- and moderate-income residents of these communities,”the TPC article noted. “The investment flexibility makes it very difficult to evaluate the success of Opportunity Zones.”

Additionally, TPC researchers noted the need for proper reporting under the Opportunity Zone program. “The next round of IRS regulations and tax forms is expected to detail those reporting requirements,”the TPC article said. “It will be vital that this disclosure provide the public with the answers to a series of basic questions: Who is investing in Opportunity Zones? How much is being invested? How is the money being used?”

Likewise, the conservative-leaning Tax Foundation noted in an October 23 article that the proposed regulations do nothing to ensure the program’s success. “The benefits given to investors through opportunity funds are remarkably generous, and many of these regulations only increase and widen those benefits without regard to the results,” the article said.

Further, stakeholders testifying before the Senate Small Business Committee in early October also emphasized the importance of establishing proper reporting metrics for the program.

Questions Remain

Although stakeholder feedback has been largely positive, stakeholders and practitioners have noted several areas where additional IRS guidance is needed. Particularly, uncertainties surrounding the application of the QOF penalty, tax treatment of the sale of a QOF asset, and clarity on the definition of qualified opportunity zone business property are reportedly among items circulating the tax community as needing further guidance.

After the IRS released the proposed regulations, Sen. Scott praised the guidance while also noting that it is incomplete. “The first set of rules released by the Treasury Department today reinforce that this will not be another bureaucratic process burdened by red tape, but rather a streamlined, efficient process that allows for investments to truly help communities in need,” Scott said.

Additionally, Bernier told Wolters Kluwer that future regulations are needed to “fill in gaps.” The next package of proposed regulations are “anticipated in November and December, “he added.

To that end, the House’s top tax writer has urged stakeholders in a recent statement to provide feedback on the proposed regulations. Moreover, those comments should include “identifying any areas where additional technical guidance would be valuable in providing certainty to potential investors and project managers,” House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady, R-Tex., said.