President Donald Trump’s tax code overhaul contained a provision to help the poor called “opportunity zones.” Our reporting shows that while the benefits to the poor have yet to materialize, some have already reaped the rewards: the wealthy and politically connected.
We used records requests, data analysis and mapping to find areas that never should have been qualified for the program, but were allowed in by a flawed implementation of the law by the U.S. Treasury Department. Wealthy developers in those areas then lobbied governors to include their projects in the program.
Our articles, along with those of other outlets, led to Congressional calls for investigations into the designation process, as well as proposed reforms to make the program more transparent and to eliminate potential abuses by investors.
Citing ProPublica’s reporting:
- Senator Ron Wyden introduced a bill that would disqualify hundreds of areas from the original legislation because they were not poor, including the area in Baltimore that ProPublica identified.
- Senator Cory Booker, a vocal backer of the program and co-sponsor of the original legislation, and Representatives Emanuel Cleaver and Ron Kind called on the Treasury’s inspector general to review the program.
- House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, Senators Wyden and Booker and Representative John Lewis requested the Government Accountability Office review the program and “identify any Opportunity Zones that do not meet the statutory criteria and explain how and why they were designated.”
- Senator Bernie Sanders called for the program to be abolished altogether.
- Representative Rashida Tlaib sent a letter to several House committee leaders to investigate political influence in the opportunity zone designation process. Tlaib also introduced legislation to repeal the program.
We first noticed several Census tracts that were included in the Opportunity Zone program even though they seemed to be too rich to qualify. To confirm our suspicions, we recreated the Treasury Department’s analysis entirely.
We used Python to obtain Census data on all 74,000 tracts in every state in the U.S. from the Census API. We obtained their shapes from the Census FTP site and we got the map files for the program from a request to the agency. We loaded the data into a Postgres server and then did the spatial analysis with queries in PostGIS. We used QGIS to visualize the results.
Our analysis resulted in a handful of unqualified tracts, including ones in Detroit and Baltimore. We then focused our reporting on those tracts and the real estate interests who stood to benefit. For the first story, we acquired shapefiles of parcels in Baltimore in order to determine how much of the census tract the developer owned. We got data on tract recommendations via a request to the City of Baltimore.
We then filed a series of FOI requests to state agencies around the country to get insight into the lobbying during the high-stakes selection process for the tax break. Once we started publishing stories, we received tips that led to our reporting on the superyacht marina in Florida.
What was the hardest part of this project?
This project centered on an abstruse — but highly consequential — intersection of the tax code, state-level lobbying, and technical mapping decisions.
We had to consult with corporate tax lawyers, GIS mapping experts, and local city officials around the country.
The stories also required penetrating the business dealings of billionaires in three states, with no access or cooperation offered by the subjects. Public records requests to state and city agencies allowed us to show what the real estate interests were up to, and explain how it didn’t align with the lofty goals of the opportunity zone tax break.
What can others learn from this project?
This was not a traditional “data” story. We didn’t make sweeping statements about the world based on a database’s summary statistics. Instead, we based our reporting on the half-dozen or so outliers our analysis found.
Our data analysis was not tacked on at the end of our reporting – it was the impetus for it. After completing our analysis, we filed over a dozen public records requests at every level of government involved in the opportunity zones processes in Maryland, Michigan, Florida and other states. This included requests for emails and data to city agencies in Baltimore, Detroit, West Palm Beach and Tampa, as well as state agencies and the governor’s office in Maryland, Michigan and Florida, and FOIAs with the U.S. Treasury Department.
At the end of the day, did it involve the toolkit of the data journalist? Yes. We had to code, run queries, make maps and crunch numbers. But data didn’t tell the story; it found the story. It showed us where to file requests and start digging. It guided us along the way, helping us uncover explicit lobbying, influence and intervention by people in power. And it told us where to start asking questions. Traditional reporting eventually confirmed our suspicions: a federal agency so badly mismanaged the implementation of a program meant to benefit the poor, it benefited the very, very rich instead.