Building Opportunity: Mapping Gentrification and Investment across Opportunity Zones

January 29, 2019
By Eric Willett, Vice President , Brett Dunlavey, Analyst
Real Estate Investing Strategic Planning

Among the more controversial aspects of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 was the designation of certain parcels of land as “Opportunity Zones,” which would allow investors to defer or completely waive all capital gains taxes on qualified investments in these areas.[1] While regulations for opportunity zone investments have yet to be wholly finalized, real estate investors have amassed sizable amounts of private capital to target commercial real estate within these geographies.

Given the significant attention and capital this investment strategy has already attracted, we set out to identify the census tracts that had most gentrified in recent years, and therefore would most likely become the target of Opportunity Zone investment. Our analysis quantifies changes in real estate investment, household income levels, and associated demographic characteristics[2] to build a Gentrification Index that is then applied to every Opportunity Zone in the 25 largest metro areas. Our analysis finds that there are a number of quickly gentrifying qualified Opportunity Zones, some with tens of thousands of multifamily units to be delivered over the next several years.

Read through our key findings below, or use the interactive dashboard to explore the Opportunity Zones in your city that have gentrified the most.

Key Findings

Highly gentrified Opportunity Zones are concentrated in Rust Belt cities

While gentrification has received significant scholarly and media coverage in wealthier coastal areas such as Brooklyn and San Francisco, Opportunity Zones in Rust Belt cities have seen the most significant gentrification in recent years. Forty-nine of the top 100 most gentrified Opportunity Zones are in Rust Belt cities, including seven of the top 10. Of the eight metros with the highest average gentrification scores, five are Rust Belt cities. These findings highlight the Rust Belt’s comparatively overlooked neighborhood change and growing inequality.

Count of 100 Most Gentrified Opportunity Zones

Opportunity Zones in new technology areas have also experienced high rates of gentrification

With high salaries, a disproportionately white workforce, and increasingly urban campuses, technology companies have been at the center of gentrification discourse. It comes as no surprise that the Opportunity Zones in new technology areas have experienced high rates of gentrification in the past several years. Indeed, two of the largest technology markets, San Francisco and Denver, are also the two most gentrified metro regions by average score.

Gentrification is most pronounced in urban neighborhoods

After decades of urban exodus, urban in-migration from young, college-educated households has characterized the 2010s. The return to urban centers by these wealthy demographic cohorts has been a primary driver of gentrification, and of the top 100 most gentrified Opportunity Zones, 75 are within urban areas.

The Opportunity Zones around Detroit demonstrate this pattern clearly. Zones located in or near the urban core have gentrified rapidly over the past decade, illustrating the impact of substantial real estate investment, most notably by Dan Gilbert’s Quicken Loans and Bedrock. Meanwhile, Opportunity Zones in the city’s suburbs have experienced minimal investment, ranking well-below average on nearly all factors examined.

Gentrification Index Map

Gentrification Index Map

SOURCE: RCLCO

While the vast majority of selected Opportunity Zones fall within economically challenged neighborhoods, there remain significant outliers

Keeping with the stated aims of Opportunity Zones, most census tracts selected to be part of the Opportunity Zone program are in neighborhoods that RCLCO has classified as economically challenged. However, as our research illuminates, there remain a number of Opportunity Zone tracts within more affluent communities. We found 70 qualified Opportunity Zones in high-end neighborhoods, including Brooklyn Heights, New York, in which 2 out of 3 residents has a bachelor’s degree or higher and the current median income is $94,000.

Many of the least gentrified opportunity zones are located in Sun Belt cities

55 of the 100 least gentrified Opportunity Zones are located in Sun Belt cities. Different rates of gentrification primarily reflect the land use in these areas. Sun Belt cities are overwhelmingly suburban — 75% of Opportunity Zone tracts in Sun Belt regions are categorized as suburban by RCLCO compared with 55% in the other regions analyzed. Furthermore, the comparatively low barriers to entry and lower land prices in these metros create less pressure on local populations and fewer incentives for densification and reinvestment in contested neighborhoods.

Learn more about RCLCO’s research on Opportunity Zones and how it can help your investment strategy – contact our strategy planning and management consulting team.


About Opportunity Zones

Opportunity Zones were added to the tax code by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 in order to spur economic development in previously disinvested areas. The Treasury Department established guidelines for qualifying Opportunity Zones in 2018, and states nominated individual census tracts pursuant to those guidelines. The tax benefits to investors within Opportunity Zones are significant:

  • Investors in an Opportunity Zone fund can defer taxes on prior gains until the lesser of the sale of the investment or year-end 2026.
  • If the investment in a qualified Opportunity Zone is held for five years, there is a 10% exclusion of the deferred gain; at seven years, the exclusion increases to 15%.
  • Further, if the investment is held for 10 years, the basis of the investment in the Opportunity Zone will be increased to fair market value on the date of sale.

Gentrification Index Methodology

We defined gentrification here as a multi-stage and non-linear process indicated by increases in investment, increases in income, and changes in demography.

  • To quantify changes in investment, we compared per capita deliveries of new multifamily developments over the last decade. More gentrified census tracts were those with historically low levels of investment but significant increases in current development levels.
  • Each tract’s income index was scored based on 2010 median household income and the change in median household income between 2010 and 2017.
  • Prior research has indicated that gentrification is often associated with increases in educational attainment, decreases in the percentage of non-white residents, and changes in household size. Our demographic index is based on the change in these three factors between 2010 and 2017.

Each census tract is scored on a scale of 1 to 100 with higher scores indicating greater gentrification. For further information on the gentrification index, contact RCLCO.

Our analysis also relied on previous work by RCLCO to categorize census tracts by neighborhood characteristics. Further information on the methodology for the urban-suburban dichotomy can be found at rclco.com/neighborhood-atlas.


Article and research prepared by Eric Willett, Vice President, and Brett Dunlavey, Analyst.

RCLCO’s mission is to help clients make strategic, effective, and enduring decisions about real estate. We proudly celebrate more than 50 years of providing the best minds in real estate with cutting-edge analytics, actionable advice, and the highest level of customer service. Our work includes market, economic, financial, and impact analyses; investment portfolio strategy and implementation; entity-level strategic planning; and management consulting.

Disclaimer: Reasonable efforts have been made to ensure that the data contained in this Advisory reflect accurate and timely information, and the data is believed to be reliable and comprehensive. The Advisory is based on estimates, assumptions, and other information developed by RCLCO from its independent research effort and general knowledge of the industry. This Advisory contains opinions that represent our view of reasonable expectations at this particular time, but our opinions are not offered as predictions or assurances that particular events will occur.

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