If you are like a lot of people, your eyes may start to glaze over at the mere mention of “Opportunity Zones,” but stick with me as there is a fascinating story of apparent desperation, questionable motives, and possibly deceitful tactics in order to stem any growth in Boulder.
What are Opportunity Zones anyway?
Opportunity Zones were created by the 2017 federal tax reform package, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, as a way to incentivize investors to improve and revitalize communities across the country that have languished while the rest of the US enjoyed a terrific boom. Specifically, an Opportunity Zone is a census tract that Congress designated as eligible (read struggling) to receive private capital investments through “Opportunity Funds,” which allow investors to receive a deferral, reduction, or possibly even elimination of federal capital gains taxes, depending on how long they keep their money invested in a qualifying property and how much they improve it.
This is where the story gets interesting. Gov. Hickenlooper, seemingly with support from Boulder at the time, designated a Boulder census tract that runs from 28th to 55th Streets and from Iris to Arapahoe Avenue as an Opportunity Zone. While virtually every other municipality welcomed these designations as an opportunity to revitalize their struggling communities, the Boulder City Council placed a moratorium on its Opportunity Zone, blocking investment. And did I mention that this is a limited time offer?
If you are new to the area or have not been following local politics closely (and who could blame you?), it might seem surprising that Boulder would block such investments. However, as discussed in a previous column, a majority of the Boulder City Council appears to be beholden to Boulder’s CAVE people (Citizens Against Virtually Everything) who do not want growth of any kind. It seems they want things to be like it was “back then,” an apparently bygone era with fewer people, fewer businesses, etc. When viewed through this lens, their actions, though by definition counter productive, make sense.
And now for the master stroke of the CAVE people: make it look to the public like they are lifting the moratorium, when they are actually downzoning large parts of the city. Under the guise of lifting the Opportunity Zone moratorium and updating “use table standards,” the city will effectively downzone thousands of properties (not just in the Opportunity Zone), limiting office uses to 25 percent of floor area in the BR, BMS, and TB business zones, and limiting small office uses in residential zones. This will make any existing building in an affected business zone with more than 25 percent office space a “non-conforming use,” meaning that changes or expansions to this use would require city approval through a non-conforming use review. And what do you think the chances of getting approved would be?
This proposal by the city council runs counter to its stated positions on the environment, not to mention its own Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan policies supporting creation of 15-minute walkable neighborhoods and other policies favoring mixed-use planning, smart growth, and pedestrian uses.
If you are so inclined, you can share your opinion with the city council at firstname.lastname@example.org, or if you are really motivated, you can attend the council’s public hearing at 6 p.m. on Sept. 3 at 1777 Broadway.
Originally posted by Jay Kalinski is broker/owner of Re/Max of Boulder.
There is a serious shortage of homes in Boulder, as is evidenced by the roughly 65,000 people who commute in and out of Boulder on a daily basis. About half of these people would live in Boulder if they could, but are forced to “drive until they qualify” for a home, which increases their carbon footprint, commute times, and overall stress level. It is clear that creative solutions are needed to address this crucial issue.
The Boulder City Council’s proposed pilot program to “help” middle income families purchase market rate homes is, while creative, a Faustian bargain, in my opinion. In the current iteration supported by members of the city council, the city would use a “loan-loss reserve fund” to guaranty second mortgages that would allow people to purchase more home than they would qualify for by themselves. (An earlier version from a 2016 white paper would have had the city use its bonding power to raise money to buy a percentage of a purchaser’s home, which the city would get back at closing, plus some amount of appreciation).
If the program stopped there, I would applaud the city’s effort for trying to get more families into homes that would be owner occupied. But here is where the Faustian bargain sets in. In exchange for the city’s assistance, the buyer would have to “voluntarily” agree to deed restrict the home they just purchased to be permanently affordable.
Let us consider the consequences of this for the individual or family who purchases a home under this program:
- All of the burdens. The buyers now have all of the burdens of homeownership. For example, if the furnace breaks or the roof wears out, the burden falls on the homeowner to replace them. If the home loses value, it is ostensibly the homeowner who bears the loss when they look to resell. And remember, in this fantasy, a lender is going to agree to loan buyers more money than the lender thinks they can reasonably afford because the city is going to guaranty a portion of the loan, which means the buyers will likely have more financial strain and be at a higher risk of default. Whether the city can sufficiently incentivize a bank to overlook that they would likely be overextending buyers financially remains to be seen.
- Limited rewards. While the homeowner is saddled with the burdens and risks of ownership, they do not reap the full reward of their home’s appreciation — the city sees to this through its deed restriction. Suppose homeowners do an outstanding job of upgrading and maintaining their home, and the market rises over the 10 years they own their home, the owners will not receive the fruits of their labor and good fortune of an appreciating market. Instead, the city will cap their appreciation at some percentage likely well below the market.
For the majority of Americans, their home is their biggest asset and primary source of wealth creation. The effect of the city’s program, then, is to make families who avail themselves of this program poorer over time relative to those who purchased homes on the open market.
It is, in my opinion, this asymmetry of unlimited risk and handicapped reward underlying the program that makes it so insidious.
If this wasn’t bad enough, let us now consider the consequences of this for the housing market in Boulder in general. The more unfortunate souls the city “helps” via this program, the fewer homes will be available on the open market. If the supply of homes is further restricted via this program, and demand for housing remains strong (remember the 30,000 commuters who would like to live in Boulder?), then the result will be home prices rising even faster. So, in an effort to create a number of “permanently affordable” homes, the city will make the rest of Boulder much more expensive.
Originally posted on BizWest. Jay Kalinski is broker/owner of Re/Max of Boulder.