Voter support is necessary to authorize any general obligation bonds, including those designated for affordable housing. As a result, an effective campaign focused on winning widespread support for the bond 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 around bonds often need to be spearheaded by advocates or practitioners outside of government.
The following are some key steps that campaigns may wish to consider to help explain to voters the value of using public funds in the form of bonds for affordable homes. This section draws heavily from Changing Minds, Building Communities: Advancing Affordable Housing through Communications Campaigns. For more tips on building public support for affordable housing, visit The Campaign for Affordable Housing‘s website and LINC Housing Corporation’s “Notes from the Housing Studio” Podcast series.
- Identify the Problem—Provide clear evidence of the unmet need for affordable housing that the bond issue is designed to address in the community. Given that affordable housing is the focus of these bonds, a concentration on affordability problems experienced by vulnerable populations such as children or the elderly, as well as essential service workers like firefighters, teachers or nurses, might be most effective. 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 needs of low- to moderate-income households for housing close to their places of employment is acute. As promoted in “smart growth” design, a successful case can be made for denser multifamily rental and ownership housing near jobs and transit centers.
- 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 can be a simple, relatively inexpensive strategy available even to small-scale operations, but it can have a significant impact on the campaign’s ultimate success.
- 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, passed in 2002, 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 of working 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 described families living in affordable homes and gave accounts of how their jobs are vital to the community and how they provide other residents with necessary services.
Examples of successful bond campaigns
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 a professional web presence. As of June 2015, an estimated $100 million of the funds remained. At that time, the bond had contributed to the construction of 83,951 affordable homes and 3,019 shelter spaces, preserved about 500 affordable homes, and rehabilitated almost 7,000 homes.
Rhode Island’s “Bring Home the Bond” legislative campaign
In 2006, the “Bring Home the Bond” 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 RI 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.