Support Housing Bond Issues
Goal: Increase the Availability of Affordable Homes
Role: Generate Capital
Policy: Support Housing Bond Issues

What are housing bond issues?

Housing bond issues are general obligation bonds dedicated to affordable housing. General obligation bonds are bonds that state or local governments issue to raise funds for an activity the jurisdiction wishes to support. The bonds are repaid through tax levies or appropriations by the legislature. In many jurisdictions, a special vote of the electorate is needed to authorize the issuance of such bonds. In some cases, a ballot measure for the issuance of general obligation bonds also will authorize a specific tax to pay for the bonds. While challenging to secure, general obligation bonds (and other types of publicly issued bonds) can provide an indispensable form of flexible funding for the development of affordable homes.

What problems does this policy solve?

General obligation bonds are an important financing source for public works projects, including the development of affordable housing, that do not generate sufficient revenue to pay for themselves. Because the bonds are repaid out of general revenue or a dedicated tax, the funds raised by the bonds function as equity, reducing the gap between project costs and the public and private sources of financing available for a project. General obligation bonds can be particularly effective when used as gap funds to leverage federal funding streams, such as 4 percent tax credits. General obligation funds also can be used to support state or local housing programs that do not qualify for federal funds.

Where is this policy most applicable?
Solutions in Action
Villa Madera
Photo courtesy of California Department of Housing and Community Development

Villa Madera Family Housing in Oxnard, California consists of 72 units of affordable multifamily homes, along with a 3,655 square foot community room and an outdoor play area. The development was funded in part by California's Multifamily Housing Program, which was supported by funds raised through the Proposition 46 housing bond issue.

Visit the Gallery to learn more about Villa Madera.

Any state or locality can issue general obligation bonds to fund affordable
housing projects. Since the need for voter approval is the key obstacle to issuing general obligation bonds, the ability to do so will vary according to public opinion, the jurisdiction's legal and political environment, and its fiscal condition.

Villas on SixthLearn more about using general obligation bonds to finance affordable homes

Tsigo Bugeh VillageGo back
to learn about other policies that generate capital

The Center for Housing Policy gratefully acknowledges the input and feedback provided for this policy section by Jeff Loustau, California Housing Consortium. Please note, however, that the views and opinions expressed on are those of the Center for Housing Policy alone.

Goal: Increase the Availability of Affordable Homes
Role: Generate Capital
Policy: Support Housing Bond Issues

How do general obligation bonds work?

General obligation bonds can be issued by states, counties, towns, cities, and other municipal authorities. Jurisdictions often use general obligation bonds to raise funds for projects that will benefit the entire community, but will not generate sufficient direct revenue to support repayment of the debt. These bonds can bridge the gap between the costs of affordable housing projects and the financing they can support through expected rents or home sales.

General obligation bonds may be repaid out of the general revenue or through increases in existing taxes. Property taxes are the most common source of financing, but jurisdictions may also levy additional sales, income, and other taxes for this purpose. Because general obligation bonds are secured by tax dollars, they must go on the market through a competitive bidding process in which the broker dealer offering the lowest interest cost wins the bonds. This process assures taxpayers that the municipality is borrowing at the lowest possible rate.
Portland Place, Minneapolis MN -- Photo courtesy of LHB, Inc.

Investors are willing to accept a lower rate because, in most cases, municipal bond interest is exempt from federal tax and can be exempt from state tax if the investor resides in the state issuing the bond. General obligation bonds serve a public purpose and therefore interest on these bonds is exempt from federal tax.

In some states and municipalities, the ability to issue general obligation bonds is restricted by a legal debt limit that determines the maximum allowable bond debt the jurisdiction can have outstanding at any time. For example, the Texas state constitution limits general obligation bond debt to a maximum of five percent of the average revenue from taxes over the past three years. The amount the state can borrow against the general revenue is thus tied to the amount of general revenue the state collects. Many states use the same general approach, though the percentages of revenue used to determine the debt limit vary. Hawaii, for instance, limits general obligation bond debt to 18.5 percent of the general revenue averaged over the past three years.

Learn more about the ways that general obligation bonds differ from other types of government bonds that can be used to support affordable homes.

Click on the links below to learn more about using general obligation bonds to finance affordable homes:

How are states and localities using general obligation bonds for affordable homes?

How can we build public support for housing bond issues?

Click here
to view other resources on housing bond issues.

Goal: Increase the Availability of Affordable Homes
Role: Generate Capital
Policy: Support Housing Bond Issues

How Can We Build Public Support for Housing Bond Issues?

Voter support is necessary to authorize bond issues in many states and localities. As a result, an effective campaign focused on winning widespread support is often a critical component of implementing this policy. While there is a role for policymakers to play in galvanizing public support for affordable housing measures, in many cases, these campaigns often need to be spearheaded by advocates or practitioners outside of government. Building public support is especially important during down housing markets and tough economic times- the need for affordable housing is often greater under these circumstances.

The following are some key steps that campaigns may wish to consider to help explain to voters the value of using public funds for affordable homes:*

Identify the Problem -- Provide clear evidence of the unmet need for affordable housing that the bond issue is designed to address in the community. Where appropriate, in light of the substantive focus of the bonds, concentrate on affordability problems experienced by vulnerable populations such as children or the elderly, as well as essential service workers like firefighters, teachers or nurses. This emphasis builds understanding, appeals to the community's desire for economic health and vitality, and identifies the problem as one that affects large segments of the community. In addition, in many communities the need for low-to-moderate income workforce housing is acute. Promoting "smart growth" design, a successful case can be made for denser multifamily rental and ownership housing near jobs and transit centers.

Affordable Housing and Property Values

A commonly-voiced objection to new affordable development is that it will reduce the property values of nearby homes. Click here to read a research brief produced by the Center for Housing Policy for the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation that assesses the research evidence for this claim [PDF].

Poll the Public -- Conducting surveys and focus groups can offer key insights into how to tailor the message to appeal to the target audience. Polling is a simple, relatively inexpensive strategy available even to small-scale operations, but it can have a significant impact on the campaign's ultimate success.
Solutions in Action
In 2006, Rhode Island's "Bring Home the Bond" legislative campaign helped pass a bond issue of $50 million for the construction of 1,000 new affordable homes.

The campaign was led by the HousingWorks Coalition, whose membership of 120 included nonprofit groups, for-profit corporations, churches, unions, and trade organizations. Based on focus group results, HousingWorks framed affordable housing as an economic (rather than moral) issue.

The campaign's Communications team launched a Speakers Bureau that recruited and trained members of coalition organizations to act as ambassadors for the bond. Ultimately, the measure received support from a majority of voters in every part of the state, and was approved by a 66 percent overall majority of Rhode Islanders.

Build Strong Coalitions
-- Important allies may include community nonprofit organizations, local churches, businesses, banks, trade associations, labor unions, and school districts. Ensuring that the coalition of stakeholders represents a broad range of industries and sectors reinforces the impression of unity and overwhelming support, and brings the message to a diverse assortment of voters. As a result, housing bond measures may be particularly likely to pass when they are designed to serve numerous interests; for example, according to the Campaign for Affordable Housing, California's Proposition 46 included $450 million for homeownership programs, winning crucial support from Realtors and home builders.

Start a Petition - The basic grassroots strategy of collecting signatures endorsing a housing bond issue demonstrates to the community that support for the measure is widespread. Petitions are most effective when they include numerous signatures from a range of individuals and organizations. Petition results and support should be followed by various distribution channels. For example, results can be woven into opinion editorials and letters-to-the-editor written by key decision-makers and others engaged in the bond issue.

Use Words That Resonate Positively With Voters -- Research suggests that the word "homes" resonates better than "housing" and that the public may be more supportive of providing funding for "working families" than a group identified simply by income, such as "low- to moderate-income" families. Arguments should also be structured to appeal to the voters' self interest - framing affordable housing as a contributor to the community's economic development is often particularly effective. Jargon often associated with affordable housing, such as area median income (AMI), should be avoided. Instead, it is usually more effective to talk about the salaries of teachers, police officers and other types "workforce" households, and how they often don't earn enough to live in the communities they serve.

Tell Stories about Real People -- An essential element of a successful housing bond campaign is to provide concrete illustrations of the bond's potential benefits. Effective campaign materials should include profiles of families and individuals in need of affordable housing. This strategy appeals to the public's emotions and drives home the many ways in which the bond issue will help individuals and families within the community. One campaign in Florida portrayed families living in affordable homes in positive light, giving accounts of how their jobs are vital to the community and how they provide other residents with necessary services. 

Case Study: California's Proposition 46 Campaign
The legislative campaign to pass California's Proposition 46 raised a budget of $2.4 million to market the housing bond issue to voters throughout the state. Based on results from focus groups and polls conducted by professional consultants, the Yes on Prop 46! Californians for Housing and Emergency Shelter campaign's literature focused on the bond issue's benefits for seniors, the homeless, and battered women's shelters. (Note, however, that advocates for seniors raised concerns that insufficient funds were targeted to senior housing needs.)

The communications strategy included television commercials targeted to key areas, mass mailings targeted to those considered most likely to vote, editorials in all the state's major newspapers, and "an extensive, professionally designed website." [1]

[1] Housing Advocacy Catalog. [PDF] Los Angeles, CA: The Campaign for Affordable Housing. See page 48 for a description of the Yes on Prop 46! Campaign.

* This section draws heavily from Changing Minds, Building Communities: Advancing Affordable Housing through Communications Campaigns. [PDF] Proceedings from May 5, 2004 Symposium in Minneapolis, MN published in the NeighborWorks Journal. For more tips on building public support for affordable housing, visit the The Campaign for Affordable Housing's website and LINC Housing Corporation's "Notes from the Housing Studio" Podcast series.

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How can we build public support for housing bond issues?

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How are states and localities using general obligation bonds for affordable homes?

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Goal: Increase the Availability of Affordable Homes
Role: Generate Capital
Policy: Support Housing Bond Issues

Types of Bonds Used for Housing

General obligation bonds are just one type of government bond used to fund affordable housing and other public works projects. The principal benefit of using general obligation bonds for housing is that the projects they fund are not expected to generate the revenue necessary to repay the debt. Therefore, general obligation bonds can be used as equity to support a project that cannot be financed adequately with available funds.

While general obligation bond issues are politically difficult to achieve, they offer a critical source of financing because the funds can be awarded as an outright grant if the municipality or state so chooses. The fact that they are exempt from federal tax and possible state tax as well, allows them to be issued with relatively low interest rates, providing the issuer with access to capital at below market rates.

Other government bonds - known as private activity bonds because they finance private activities that serve public purposes - need to be repaid, and thus are limited to providing low-cost loans for affordable housing. The main advantage of tax-exempt bonds for housing, relative to private financing, is that their tax-exempt status lowers the interest rate a bond-funded project needs to pay.

Because private activity bonds fund private development, the issuing jurisdiction needs to determine whether that development serves a public purpose. If so, those private activity bonds can be designated as what are often called "qualified" private activity bonds, which are tax-exempt. When private activity bonds are used for affordable rental housing, they also leverage the 4 percent Low-Income Housing Tax Credit.

Other types of bonds used for housing include:

Mortgage revenue bonds
are a type of private activity bond, issued by state or local housing finance agencies, to help fund low-interest mortgages for first-time homebuyers. Unlike general obligation bonds, mortgage revenue bonds are not backed by municipal taxing power. Instead, they are repaid through a specified revenue source generated by the project they are used to fund - in this case, the individual borrower.

To qualify for a mortgage supported by bonds, the buyer must earn no more than the area median income (or 115 percent of AMI for large families) and must purchase a home for no more than 90 percent of the area's average home price. According to the National Council of State Housing Agencies, each year mortgage revenue bonds make homeownership affordable for approximately 100,000 families earning, on average, half the income of the average conventional homebuyer.

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Multifamily housing bonds are another type of private activity bond issued by state and local housing finance agencies to finance the construction of multifamily housing developments in which a certain percentage of the units is set aside for low-income families at a rent they can afford. Bond-financed projects must designate either 40 percent of units for families making less than 60 percent of area median income, or 20 percent of units for families making less than 50 percent of area median income. These units must remain affordable at these income levels for a minimum of 15 years.

Qualifying rental housing projects financed by multifamily housing bonds automatically qualify for federal 4 percent Low-Income Housing Tax Credits, leveraging the value of the bonds significantly. These 4 percent tax credits are not subject to the per capita ceiling of a given state. The National Council of State Housing Agencies reports that approximately 130,000 multifamily homes are financed each year with multifamily housing bonds.

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501(c)(3) bonds are issued on behalf of 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations to support construction projects with a public purpose. Nonprofit community development groups that acquire, build or rehabilitate housing developments may qualify for 501(c)(3) bond financing, which reduces financing costs because the interest paid to bond holders is tax-exempt.

Unlike mortgage revenue bonds and multifamily housing bonds, 501(c)(3) bonds are not subject to the state private activity bond cap, which limits the private activity bonds each state can issue in 2007 to $85 per capita or a minimum of $256 million. However, 501(c)(3) bond financing cannot be combined with low-income housing tax credits.

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Continue learning about how general obligation bonds work.

Goal: Increase the Availability of Affordable Homes
Role: Generate Capital
Policy: Support Housing Bond Issues

How are States and Localities Using General Obligation Bonds for Affordable Homes?

California is the state best known for using general obligation bonds to fund affordable housing. In November 2002, California voters approved Proposition 46, which authorized the issuance of $2.1 billion in bonds for affordable housing initiatives statewide. The debt will be repaid over 30 years through the state's general fund. By June 2011, California had awarded over $1.5 billion of these funds through a variety of housing programs, contributing to the development or preservation of more than 86,000 rental and owner-occupied homes and shelter spaces.

In November 2006, California voters approved Proposition 1C, a still larger bond issue to support affordable homes - this time totaling $2.85 billion. As of June 2011, the state released $1.8 billion from the bond funds to provide over 46,000 affordable housing units. Over one-half of these funds contribute to a variety of housing programs, including the

Photo courtesy of City of Austin/Neighborhood Housing and Community Development

construction and rehabilitation of affordable rental homes, development of emergency and transitional housing, and homeownership assistance for low-income households. The Prop 1C bond also includes over $1 billion in unprecedented housing-related infrastructure subsidy to spur more mixed-incomemultifamily rental and ownership housing in transit-oriented and infill development.

In December 2008, the state's Pooled Money Investment Board (PMIB), an entity within the State Treasurer's Office which provides loans to bond-funded projects, voted to defer all bond expenditures indefinitely, in response to the state's budget crisis. [1] At that time, $1.8 billion in awarded affordable housing funds were put on hold. The funds were to be used to finance almost 800 projects under both Proposition 46 and Proposition 1C. In April 2010, PMIB allowed departments to resume bond-funded projects.

Other ways states and localities are using general obligation bonds for affordable homes:
  • In 2006, voters in Austin, Texas approved $55 million in general obligation bonds for affordable housing with a 62 percent majority. Almost 40 percent of the money dedicated to creating and retaining affordable rental units and supportive housing. These efforts target households earning between 30 and 50 percent of the area median income, people transitioning out of homelessness, and elderly residents living on fixed incomes.
About 25 percent of the funds are reserved to help working families earning 50 to 80 percent of the area median income to become first-time homeowners or make repairs to their current homes. [1] The bond money will be repaid through a small increase in property taxes, amounting to approximately $6 a year for an owner of a median-priced ($174,000) home.

In November 2009, the city announced the availability of the approved GO bonds for the GO Repair! Program, which provides funding for home repairs that address health and safety concerns for households earning 80 percent or less of the area median income. The program has received approximately $5 million in funding from the general obligation bonds and leveraged additional funding to complete repairs for 290 homes as of 2012. [2]
  • In 2004, voters in Florida authorized the Miami-Dade County Building Better Communities General Obligation Bonds, totaling almost $3 billion, to be funded over 40 years. Up to $195 million of the bond proceeds were authorized for "constructing and improving affordable housing for the elderly and working families to encourage home ownership through the acquisition, construction and renovation of residential units." [2]
The county allocated $32 million to build new public housing units and $137.7 million to build other new affordable housing. As of 2007, Miami-Dade had used $7.3 million toward the construction of more than 600 homes.

[1] View the City of Austin's Capital Planning Office webpage for more information.
[2] Austin Housing Finance Corporation General Obligation Bond Home Repairs Program Guidelines. [PDF] Austin, TX: City of Austin.
[3] Visit the Miami-Dade Building Better Communities webpage for more information.

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[1] Budget Letter. [PDF] 2010. Sacramento, CA: California Department of Finance.
Goal: Increase the Availability of Affordable Homes
Role: Generate Capital
Policy: Support Housing Bond Issues

Key Resources

The following is a list of key resources on topics related to housing bond issues. If you're aware of other resources that should be added, please contact us.

How are states and localities using general obligation bonds for affordable homes? [go to policy page]

Making the Bay Area a More Affordable Place to Live: Progress Report on Proposition 1C, the Housing and Emergency Shelter Trust Fund Act of 2006. [PDF] 2009. San Francisco, CA: The Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California.
A detailed description of how funds from the Proposition 1C housing bond issue were distributed and used in Northern California during the first three years following its passage.

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How can we build public support for housing bond issues? [go to policy page]


Homes 4 California, a joint project of the California Housing Consortium and Housing California, was formed in January of 2006 to campaign for the passage of Proposition 1C, a $2.85 billion general obligation bond issue used to fund a broad range of housing programs. Its website provides links to programs funded by Prop 1C and information on the current effort to create a permanent, dedicated funding source to address the state's housing needs.

Housing Illinois is a coalition organized in 2001 to develop a communications campaign to increase public support for expanding the supply of affordable housing in the state of Illinois, with a particular focus on the Chicago area. The public awareness campaign's key tool is television advertising, but it has also employed radio ads, print ads, posters, and brochures. The website includes a message guide [PDF], based on a public opinion survey, that helps advocates present their message in a way that will generate widespread support.

HousingMinnesotawas a public education and awareness campaign launched in 1998 and led by the Minnesota Housing Partnership. Its goal was to increase the state's supply of affordable housing by building public acceptance and support. Paid advertising was the key to its success. The website includes a history of the campaign and examples of campaign ads.

LINC Housing Corporation's "Notes from the Housing Studio" Podcast series includes discussions on a variety of affordable housing issues. In particular, Episode 13 from October 12, 2006, entitled "Re-Framing the Message," describes how advocates can communicate more effectively to build support for affordable housing.

The North Carolina Housing Coalition's messaging and strategy web page contains an overview of effective communications strategies for affordable housing advocates in the state, including a communications manual. The Coalition leads a public education and advocacy campaign with the goal of increasing investment in the state's Housing Trust Fund.


Changing Minds, Building Communities: Advancing Affordable Housing through Communications Campaigns. [PDF] Proceedings from May 5, 2004 Symposium in Minneapolis, MN, Co-Hosted by the Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation and the Campaign for Affordable Housing. Published in the NeighborWorks Journal.
This report summarizes the 2004 Changing Minds Symposium, which brought together affordable housing advocates to discuss effective communications strategies to built support for affordable housing among policymakers and the general public.

Communications as a Strategic Tool for Affordable Housing Campaigns. [PDF] 2004. By Venus Velazquez. The NeighborWorks Symposium on Multifamily Excellence.
This report provides information on strategies for winning public support for a local housing trust fund, including case studies.

The Campaign for Affordable Housing is a national nonprofit organization that works to eliminate the stigma associated with affordable housing and support grassroots efforts to promote affordable housing. The website includes a publications section with resources on building public support for affordable housing initiatives. Selected resources include:

A Housing Advocacy Catalog [PDF] describing successful state and local housing advocacy campaigns and the communications strategies they used.

What We Know About Public Attitudes on Affordable Housing: A Review of Existing Public Opinion Research. [PDF] 2004. By Belden Russonello & Stewart. The Campaign for Affordable Housing.
This report pulls together public opinion surveys on affordable housing conducted from the late 1990s through 2003, with the goal of informing communications strategies.

A Media Training Guide for Affordable Housing Advocates [PDF], which describes how advocates can communicate effectively with the media to promote affordable housing.

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Types of bonds used for housing [go to policy page]

The National Council of State Housing Agencies' website includes a housing bonds fact sheet [PDF] that provides a brief overview of Mortgage Revenue Bonds and Multifamily Bonds.

The National Low-Income Housing Coalition's Advocates' Guide provides a description of housing bonds including history, program intent, beneficiaries, structure, and funding.

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