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The Fastest Growing Opportunity Zones for 2020

Jun 10, 2020 by Jeffery Marino

Although all opportunity zones must meet certain requirements to be designated as such, not all opportunity zones are created equal.

The designation was developed as part of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 in order to encourage investment in economically distressed communities, but the data used to qualify these areas (poverty rate, median income, etc.) do not necessarily speak to their growth potential. In other words, each of these communities will undoubtedly benefit from private investment, but it's difficult to say whether investors will benefit by choosing an opportunity zone based merely on the virtue of its designation.

As an inroad to exploring these opportunities further, we looked at Census tracts qualified as opportunity zones that were already showing positive signs of growth in 2018. Since outmigration is a strong indicator of depressed communities that are struggling to turn around, we started by looking at Census tracts with the highest population gains from 2014 to 2018.

In addition to population growth, we also analyzed Census tracts with the fastest rising household incomes over the same period and developed an index with these two variables to find the fastest growing opportunity zones in the country.

The Fastest Growing Opportunity Zones in the U.S.

1. Census Tract 115: Pennington County, South Dakota

  • Population Growth: 337%
  • Household Income Growth: 168%
  • COVID-19 Employment Impact: Low

The second most populous county in South Dakota, Pennington County is home to Rapid City and Mount Rushmore. It’s also home to the fastest growing opportunity zone. While Rapid City is not exactly notable for its exceptional growth, the city of Box Elder, which is where Census tract 115 is located, most definitely is.

The median age there is 24.9, which is 12 years younger than the state median, according to Census Bureau data. Nearly half of the residents in Box Elder moved in between 2010 and 2014, and 24% moved there in 2015-2016. This explains why the population of Census tract 115 soared more than 300% from 2014 to 2018. Apparently these newcomers arrived with good jobs, as the median household income more than doubled here over the five-year period.

2. Census Tract 5203: Wayne County, Michigan

  • Population Growth: 68%
  • Household Income Growth: 114%
  • COVID-19 Employment Impact: Medium

Michigan is home to more than 100 opportunity zones, and in Wayne County, investors face a paradox of choice. Based on population and household income growth at the Census tract level, however, the choices become much clearer. While the population in Census tract 5203 grew 68% from 2014 to 2018, just several square miles away, the population and income of Census tract 5250 has been decimated over the same period.

Census tract 5203 is surrounded by several contiguous, high-performing opportunity zones, all located in the heart of the Motor City renaissance, Midtown Detroit. However, with a medium ranking for COVID-19 employment impact, and given the shaky ground the Detroit metro was already on heading into the pandemic, investors will likely be very cautious about this region.

3. Census Tract 8410: Cook County, Illinois

  • Population Growth: 43%
  • Household Income Growth: 241%
  • COVID-19 Employment Impact: Medium

Situated on the banks of Lake Michigan, Census tract 8410 has undergone massive change in the past decade. Most notable, the median household income increased from about $28,000 a year in 2014 to nearly $100,000 in 2018, which is a gain of 241%.

A landmark study on opportunity zones by the Urban Institute (UI) identified this tract as one of a handful that had already undergone significant socioeconomic change at the time of its designation. According to UI, only 3.7% of U.S. Census tracts had experienced sizable socioeconomic change -- UI’s measure of gentrification -- from 2000 to 2016, and tract 8410 in Chicago’s Cook County is one of them.

4. Census Tract 16: Franklin County, Ohio

  • Population Growth: 41%
  • Household Income Growth: 180%
  • COVID-19 Employment Impact: Low

5. Census Tract 17: Franklin County, Ohio

  • Population Growth: 47%
  • Household Income Growth: 109%
  • COVID-19 Employment Impact: Low

Both Census tracts that occupy 4th and 5th place in our ranking have extremely high poverty rates. In both tract 16 and 17 of Franklin County, Ohio, more than 50% of the residents live below the poverty line, according to Census data. Both tracts, however, are also undergoing rapid change. While household incomes are still quite low (around $30,000 between the two), they have more than doubled from 2014 to 2018. Census tract 16 has also been flagged by the Urban Institute as having undergone significant socioeconomic change in the last decade, making both of these areas in the heart of Columbus intriguing opportunities.

6. Census Tract 4028: Alameda County, California

  • Population Growth: 41%
  • Household Income Growth: 122%
  • COVID-19 Employment Impact: Medium

Considering the massive economic changes that have occurred in the Bay Area over the past decade, it’s a wonder any communities would qualify as an opportunity zone. The East Bay, however, still has many pockets of distressed communities that are ripe for investment. A very clear sign of the gentrified times, nearly 30% of those who call tract 4028 home live under the poverty line while the median home value in 2018 approached $700,000, according to Census data.

Despite the high cost of living, the population is booming and incomes are on the rise. While it may be difficult to make residential real estate investment pencil out in this high-priced neighborhood, there are likely many retail and office investments in and around tract 4028.

7. Census Tract 9: Hamilton County, Ohio

  • Population Growth: 51%
  • Household Income Growth: 83%
  • COVID-19 Employment Impact: Medium

Located in what was at one time considered the most dangerous neighborhood in the U.S., Census tract 9 and its contiguous neighbors are now at the core of Cincinnati's renaissance. Still, incomes are low and poverty rates remain high, but the rate of change is remarkable. Household incomes have spiked 81%, and the population has grown 51% over a five-year period. As of 2018, 44.5% of the residents in tract 9 had a bachelor’s degree or higher, which is about 1.5 times the rate for the state of Ohio.

8. Census Tract 40.08: El Paso County, Colorado

  • Population Growth: 113%
  • Household Income Growth: 75%
  • COVID-19 Employment Impact: Low

The Colorado Springs metro area recently ranked third for the hottest rental investment markets in 2020, according to a recent Millionacres study. The metro outranked the booming cities of Boulder and Denver, primarily because of the low cost of living coupled with stellar employment growth.

Although there are OZs closer in to the core of Colorado Springs, many of them appear to have plateaued when it comes to population and income growth. Not so with Census tract 40.08. Household income has more than doubled in the past five years, and at $71,000, it’s now 10% higher than the median in El Paso County proper.

9. Census Tract 20: Mercer County, New Jersey

  • Population Growth: 44%
  • Household Income Growth: 85%
  • COVID-19 Employment Impact: Low

Census tract 20 and the cluster of other opportunity zones in Trenton’s urban core share high poverty rates and low incomes. Unlike its neighboring tracts, however, Census tract 20 has undergone significant growth since 2014. While the populations are dwindling in the surrounding OZs, the population here has increased 44% from 2014 to 2018, and household income has nearly doubled.

10. Census Tract 11: Albany County, New York

  • Population Growth: 38%
  • Household Income Growth: 97%
  • COVID-19 Employment Impact: Low

In 2019, Governor Andrew Cuomo approved $22 million in funding to support the revitalization of downtown Albany. That funding comes on the heels of downtown’s designation as an opportunity zone and after a five-year period of solid population and income growth. Still, Albany’s urban core remains economically depressed. The median household income in Census tract 11 is less than half that of Albany County, and 37% of the tract's population live below the poverty line, according to Census data. However, this ranking is about growth, and of the many designated opportunity zones in Upstate New York, the center of Downtown Albany is growing the fastest.

The Fastest Growing Opportunity Zones by State

Interested in researching further? Use the map below to explore opportunity zones ranked by population and household income growth in every state.


To calculate the fastest growing opportunity zones, we first gathered population data and household income data at the Census tract level from the 2010-2014 and 2014-2018 American Community Survey (ACS) five-year estimates. Each data set contains 60 months of accumulated data and is considered the most accurate and reliable of all ACS products. Using the raw figures from the ACS files, we calculated the period-over-period population and household income growth respectively. We then ranked each Census tract based on their percentile ranking within each variable, weighted each variable at 50%, and then summed them, assigning an index score. Prior to calculating the ranking, we limited the data set to include Census tracts with a minimum population of 500 and a minimum household income of $10,000 to control for volatility. Including these controls limited the data set from 8,700+ designated opportunity zones to 7,681.

Opportunity Zone shapefiles and the list of designated opportunity zones were collected from the U.S. Treasury Department Community Development Financial Institutions Fund (CDFI).

The COVID-19 employment impact ranking was provided by REIS Real Estate Solutions by Moody’s Analytics and is based on the industry-level employment share in each metro area where the featured opportunity zone is located.

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