Remarks by Rockefeller Foundation President Dr. Rajiv J. Shah at the Atlanta Opportunity Zones Announcement
July 31, 2019
As delivered on Wednesday, July 31, 2019, at Met Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.A.
Thank you, Eloisa, and thank you Kweku for being here with us and having us here. And thanks in particular to Mayor Bottoms for your leadership and for taking this on and supporting our partnership.
By way of introduction, The Rockefeller Foundation is committed to supporting the innovations at home and around the world that help lift up vulnerable families and communities. And, frankly at a time when our country feels more unequal than ever, we feel that mission is particularly important, and we’re excited to be here in Atlanta to try to do something about it.
We recognize that today the American Dream is out of reach for more Americans than it has been in a long time – and for many marginalized communities in our country, it was not all that accessible to begin with.
So in the face of these realities, we all have a path to choose. We can choose to let those inequalities drive us apart, and be cynical and angry with each other, which sometimes we see in our politics. Or we can choose the more difficult, but more worthwhile path: of coming together, offering everybody a chance to participate in growth and investment and opportunity, and seeking to help the most challenged communities, in particular, have ladders of opportunity.
That’s the path we’ve chosen at The Rockefeller Foundation. And it’s why I’m in Atlanta today, to announce that Atlanta is the second city chosen in our national Opportunity Zone partnership. This is a program that has the goal of making sure that this provision of the tax law – that provides tax incentives to investors to invest in lower-income, designated communities – will in fact help lift up the people who live and work and go to school in and depend on those communities, and not just the investors that often live outside of the city.
This city holds a special place in our hearts at The Rockefeller Foundation. We helped fund Spelman College, which was of course [supported] by the family of Laura Spelman Rockefeller, in their early philanthropy. Our support for the Southern Regional Council and its racial integration work in the 1960s, in particular helping to fund the Voter Education Project led by now-Congressman John Lewis – needed more than ever, it seems – is something we’re quite proud of. Our partnership with the Atlanta Urban League [began] many decades [ago]. And most recently, we’re proud to have supported Atlanta through our  Resilient Cities program – which led to innovative efforts like the Anti-Displacement Tax Fund that helps people living in and owning property in certain communities maintain their residences and their ownership even as property taxes rise.
Today, we’re excited to build on that partnership through this Opportunity Zones engagement. As you know and as Eloisa mentioned, Opportunity Zones are likely to bring many billions of dollars to the 8,00 designated zones around the United States. On a national basis, the percentage of people who are African American or Hispanic American living in those zones is 55 to 60 percent. The poverty rate is triple what it is on the national level. The unemployment rate is almost four times what it is on the national level.
And we know that this provision of the tax bill is going to cost American taxpayers money, because it is in fact part of the $2.3 trillion-dollar tax bill that was recently passed. And of the $2.3 trillion [over 10 years], conservative estimates are that 83 percent of those tax benefits will go to the richest 1 percent. So we’re here today because we think working with Mayor Bottoms and with many of you, Atlanta can be a shining example of how some of that tax benefit can actually help lift up low-income families and lower-income communities, and help them make their lives better.
And we know the Opportunity Zone law lacks any real regulatory safeguards. So we hope this partnership, with the Mayor’s leadership, can help create a framework for local communities to have a voice in the transactions that take place, and for local investors to have a process and a place to go to learn about how to do their investment work in a manner that is most supportive of job creation and advancement.
In Atlanta, more than 85,000 people live in the city’s 26 Opportunity Zones, which this partnership will focus on. The average income in those zones is $39,000, and 37 percent of Opportunity Zone residents in those areas live below the poverty line – with an unemployment rate that is north of 17 percent. So we appreciate the fact that these are communities that deserve and warrant real attention and real focus from government, but also from philanthropies and investors.
And given how much room for improvement exists in those Opportunity Zones, we’re excited to help support the Mayor and the team here in a number of concrete ways. We’re setting a goal together through this partnership to promote affordable housing as part of what the Opportunity Zones should have, via the investment pathways that are created. We hope to equip local government and empower community leaders to have a greater voice to make the tax incentives work. And we’re committing to measure the impacts of those investments – not just on investment returns for those who have the capital to put into those transactions, but also in terms of families, and employment, and lives, and how people are doing who live in those communities.
Two months ago, we launched this effort on a national basis, and announced Newark as our first partner city. And today we’re excited to share that Atlanta will be our second partner city, receiving nearly $1 million dollars in grants and support services over the next two years.
That will include support for the Mayor to create the position of a Chief Opportunity Zone Officer, who can be the North Star for the administration of the city’s strategy and implementation efforts around Opportunity Zone oversight.
It will also include support for community engagement specialists, to be able to be involved in specific transactions and to work with local residents and small business leaders in particular to make sure that they can be part of Opportunity Zone investment design at every step – from Pittsburgh Yards and Summer Hill, to Briarwood and the West End Mall.
And finally, we hope – and we know Atlanta will also receive support from a national Opportunity Zone Technical Assistance Team, that will look at best practices around the country and come up with ways to bring those here, and then share some of the tremendous innovations that you all are making happen here with others who have a real desire to make sure this policy lifts all boats, and not just the yachts.
At the end of the day at The Rockefeller Foundation, we are optimistic because we know that even though our national politics can be a little rough, it’s often in local settings and with great mayors that we see a lot of innovation and a lot of commitment and a lot of progress. You have one of those great mayors in this city, so I will not belabor her introduction, because we all know and admire her leadership. But I will say that she is a shining example of what we believe at The Rockefeller Foundation, which is, if we can work with cities and help them be more innovative and better-resourced to take advantage of both policies and practices that exist at the federal and state level, we can help lift up communities and showcase what’s possible as we try to make this country more just and more fair for those who are too often left out.
Mayor Bottoms, we are excited to work with you on this project.
# # #