Poor areas need more than ‘investment’


Amadi Anene - Guest columnist



Low-income neighborhoods need employee-owned businesses anchored to their communities, not investors looking to make a quick buck.

Where some of us see distressed neighborhoods — where families endure poverty and homes fall into disrepair — others see dollar signs. In fact, the Trump administration now brands them “opportunity zones,” offering tax breaks to investors who invest capital there.

What remains unclear is this: Opportunity for whom? Big investors may stand to cash in, but many communities are saying they’re not getting the benefits they were promised.

Advocates argue that these incentives encourage investors to direct money into distressed communities in ways that will lead to new jobs, better housing, and other businesses being willing to open up shop in the revitalized community.

There are at least two problems with that argument.

First, many distressed communities suffer from economic challenges that investment alone cannot address, including redlining and housing discrimination. These communities need systemic policy changes that get at the root of discrimination to set the stage for lasting economic change.

Second, studies across the country (as well as in the U.K.) offer little evidence that such incentives actually benefit neighborhoods in the long run.

An expansive study of 75 enterprise zones in 13 U.S. states concluded that tax incentives had “little to no impact on economic growth.” One study of a zone in New Jersey even concluded that increased economic activity within its zone came at the expense of non-zones in the nearby area — the kind of zero-sum economics that would discourage investments in the long run.

Amid all of this is the concern that opportunity zones will mean escalating housing costs, accelerating the process by which residents are displaced because they can no longer afford to live there.

There are ways opportunity zones can be made to work so that the people living in the zones benefit as well as investors.

Employees who own parts of their place-based business have a long-term source of wealth and an incentive to stay and improve their neighborhoods, because doing so improves their businesses.

We also need to make more affordable housing available, especially through community land trusts, limited equity housing cooperatives, and other strategies that offer opportunities for resident equity building.

Under the Trump administration, opportunity zones — the rebranded “enterprise” and “empowerment” zones of the past — will have some new features but the same bottom line: investors stand to win, while residents lose.

Ensuring that people living in these zones are also winners will require us to push for more fundamental change.

Amadi Anene is a fellow at The Democracy Collaborative. He served as a senior adviser in the Small Business Administration during the Obama administration. Distributed by OtherWords.org.

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Amadi Anene

Guest columnist