State seeks to fill gap in community development financing

Investors show strong interest in ‘sustainability bonds.’

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Oregon’s state Treasury is looking to fund more community-driven infrastructure projects as appetite from investors in such financing grows.

Last week the Treasury sold its first ‘sustainability bonds’ – a $40 million issuance that will finance affordable housing construction throughout Oregon.

The new category of state bonds are tailored for socially responsible investors and are the first bonds that are dedicated to projects that strengthen community and sustainability efforts.

The Treasury department issues bonds to fund a variety of state needs. Oregon State Treasurer Tobias Read said the Treasury is now capitalizing on the investment community’s interest in financing for sustainability projects.

“The market is interested in this,” said Read. “There are a variety of investors that want to focus on the sustainability of communities.”

The sustainability bonds are different from other housing initiatives, such as a $258 million general obligation bond issued by the City of Portland in 2016 for affordable housing. That bond was used to raise property taxes to fund affordable housing.

The state sustainability bonds were popular with investors. The issuance was three times oversubscribed and attracted a range of institutional mutual funds, including a number of buyers who focus on socially responsible investments, said a Treasury spokeswoman.  

The state has stepped into an underfunded area of the housing market. The region’s affordable housing crisis is deepening as rents remain high and home values skyrocket.

“The legislature decided we have a role to play to support affordable housing. There are clear examples of the private market not fulfilling the need for affordable housing,” said Read.

The Oregon Housing Stability Council will determine which projects will be financed through the bond in the coming month.

The Treasury may issue future bonds that finance other ‘sustainable’ projects, including environmental protection and resiliency. Read declined to elaborate on specific projects.

“We are learning what investors have in mind by sustainability,” said the Treasurer. “There may evolve a consistent definition.”

Investors like sustainability bonds because they offer more predictability and less volatility than other markets, Read added.

The state’s $40 million sustainability bonds mature between one and 20 years, with coupons ranging from 2.29% to 3.98%.

Strong demand for the securities allowed the Treasury to lower yields on most maturities by two basis points, saving the state $75,000 in interest payments over the life of the bonds, said the Treasury spokeswoman.