The New York Times: How a Trump tax break to help poor communities became a windfall for the rich

The New York Times, August 31, 2019: How a Trump tax break to help poor communities became a windfall for the rich

President Trump has portrayed America’s cities as wastelands, ravaged by crime and homelessness, infested by rats.

But the Trump administration’s signature plan to lift them — a multibillion-dollar tax break that is supposed to help low-income areas — has fueled a wave of developments financed by and built for the wealthiest Americans.

Former Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey; Richard LeFrak, a New York real estate titan who is close to the president; Anthony Scaramucci, a former White House aide who recently had a falling out with Trump; and the family of Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, all are looking to profit from what is shaping up to be a once-in-a-generation bonanza for elite investors.

The stated goal of the tax benefit — tucked into the Republicans’ 2017 tax-cut legislation — was to coax investors to pump cash into poor neighborhoods, known as opportunity zones, leading to new housing, businesses and jobs.

“Opportunity zones, hottest thing going, providing massive new incentives for investment and job creation in distressed communities,” Trump declared at a recent rally in Cincinnati.

Instead, billions of untaxed investment profits are beginning to pour into high-end apartment buildings and hotels, storage facilities that employ only a handful of workers, and student housing in bustling college towns, among other projects.

The opportunity zones, focused on low-income census tracts, were drawn by officials in each state, as well as in Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. Last year, the Treasury Department approved roughly 8,800 such zones. (The White House and Treasury declined to make senior officials available to discuss the program.)

The tax break is largely benefiting the real estate industry — where Trump made his fortune and still has extensive business interests — and it is luring people with personal or professional connections to the president.

Backers of the opportunity-zone program say luxury projects are the easiest to finance, which is why those have been happening first. Over the long run, they say, those deals will be eclipsed by ones that produce social benefits in low-income areas.

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