Poor urban and rural communities traditionally have had limited access to affordable credit and investment capital, making it difficult to spur economic development and job growth. A long-term bond guarantee program that Lisa Jones stood-up and directs at the Department of the Treasury is helping change this state of affairs.
Since 2013, the bond program has made available $852 million in loans to low-income communities to finance small businesses, affordable rental housing, day-care centers, senior living facilities, charter schools and health-care facilities.
It is “a game-changer” that is “unlocking doors” in underserved communities by making long-term capital available at lower borrowing costs, said Tricia Kerney-Willis, a senior advisor at the Treasury’s Community Development Financial Institutions Fund.
“What Lisa Jones has accomplished is highly unique. The program is an example of great innovation,” Kerney-Willis said. “There is no way this financing program would be successful without Lisa.”
The Small Business Jobs Act of 2010 established the Community Development Financial Institutions Bond Guarantee Program to provide low-cost, long-term capital to underserved communities. The law directs the Treasury to guarantee 30-year bonds that qualified issuers then make available to Community Development Financial Institutions, or CDFIs.
Prior to the creation of this bond program, these CDFIs—banks, credit unions, loan funds and venture capital providers, all with a primary mission of community development—have had limited long-term capital to invest in poor communities. This is due, in part, to the fact that they have been unable to gain access to sufficient capital for sizable investments. When capital has been available, it generally has been for loans of five to seven years, not long enough for the viability of many projects.
Having worked in the private sector helping make investments in emerging and underserved communities overseas, Jones understood both the dynamics of the institutional investment industry and the needs of impoverished or overlooked communities.
When designing the program, Jones worked closely with several federal entities, the staff from the Treasury Department, investors and lenders in Community Development Financial Institutions across the country, and other stakeholders.
“This was no easy feat,” said Annie Donovan, the Community Development Financial Institutions Fund director. “There is no program or product like this for CDFIs. She saw the value and took the bull by the horns. She has built something that is rock solid and is going to live on.”
To mitigate risks before financing is made available, Jones, in conjunction with Treasury employees, constructed the program to ensure that her staff would question loan applicants intensively—a process that sometimes takes as long as four months—and closely review financials, internal controls, procedures and policies.
Throughout the loan cycle, the bond recipients must check in regularly to ensure compliance, Kerney-Willis said.
Don Graves, Jr., a White House deputy assistant to the president and counselor to the vice president, said the bond initiative has resulted in “really credible, well-performing investments.”
“The program that Lisa built is transforming how the capital markets and investors look at making investments in low-income, underserved communities,” Graves said. “She designed the program and got it to work better than anyone thought it could.”
The bond program is set up to function at no cost to taxpayers. Unlike other community development financing programs, this initiative does not offer grants. It is a federal credit program and the bond proceeds are debt instruments that must be repaid.
One series of bonds were issued to Kentucky-based CDFIs focused on the closing of coal mines and the resulting job displacement. Last year, the program guaranteed $40 million in loans that will finance small businesses, commercial real estate and rental housing in the state.
In Arizona, an institution received approval for $100 million to finance senior living and long-term care facilities, day-care centers, health-care facilities and rental housing for low-income Latino communities. Another $16 million in loans will provide financing for large-scale commercial real estate projects on Native American lands in the Citizens Potawatomi Nation in Oklahoma.
Jones said that seeing the benefits the loans provide is what matters.
“You can focus on the numbers, the program structure and the rules and regulations, but seeing the end users empowered to improve their lives is the critical portion for me,” Jones said.