“The Bigger The Challenge, The More I Like It”—A Conversation with Jane Graf

Jane Graf, Mercy Housing’s President & CEO, is retiring, so we sat down with her to chat about her career. It offers an insightful look at Mercy Housing, the affordable housing industry, and what it means to be a leader.

1. How did you get into affordable housing?

I understood early on that affordable housing is a matter of justice. It’s unjust for a country with such wealth to let people in need go without access or opportunity. In the 1970s, mental health wards and state-run hospitals were forced to close — it was one of the most prolific deinstitutionalizations in history. A movement to house developmentally disabled adults in the community was needed, but few organizations were willing to take it on. As the Housing Specialist at the Association for Retarded Citizens of Oregon, I was looking for solutions to this housing need. After repeatedly asking the state finance agency, various City agencies and others in the housing sector, how they planned to provide housing options for this group of people, it became clear they were not. I thought, “this is not right!” I convinced three statewide organizations: The ARC of Oregon, Epilepsy Foundation, and United Cerebral Palsy of Oregon to be the sponsor organizations so that I could found Specialized Housing, Inc. in 1981. As the first step in this journey, I convinced banks and the local, state and federal governments to support this organization to build and own affordable apartments and group homes throughout the State of Oregon. When I was creating the board for Specialized Housing, Inc., I made sure we had an expert in every facet of housing: we had a title person, a developer, a contractor, one public official, a realtor,  a land-use attorney, I had one of everything even an accountant — they taught me the business through experience. In the process I helped design and influence legislation in Oregon to better serve and protect housing for people with special needs, changing zoning laws state-wide and finding better ways to allocate funding to help this segment of the population.

I wanted to help communities to be more equitable for people that have been marginalized by systemic and institutional discrimination. Affordable housing gets right to the heart of these issues.

2. What made you realize that you should continue this path of leading affordable housing development?

In the early days of my career I was doing applications for the HUD 202 program to build group homes to serve the developmentally disabled, and one year, I did seven applications in one funding round and I got ALL OF THEM. I was a one-person show, and that was a turning point. When I got every one of them, I thought ‘I like this, and yea, I can do this!’ I’ve always believed that nothing is impossible. If you think something is too hard, then you’re already defeated.

3. Where did your passion for social justice come from?

I knew from a young age that I wanted to pursue this type of work. It’s always been that way and it required a sense of fearlessness, something I learned from my mother. My mother was afraid of nothing and no one. At town hall meetings she would ask hard-hitting questions to local politicians at a time when women didn’t do that. She was a wonderful role model that’s been with me my entire life.

4. How did you come to join the Mercy Housing family?

I was directing the affordable housing work for Catholic Charities in San Francisco. Sister Lillian was bringing Mercy Housing into the California market and Sister Diane Clyne was staffing that effort in San Francisco. Jack Burgis was our mutual connection, and he was the CFO of Catholic Healthcare West, on the board of the local Mercy Housing entity as well as on the board of Catholic Charities. I had met Sister Lillian when she had just become the CEO of Mercy Housing and she confided in me for housing advice. I recognized what a treasure the Sisters were. Their knowledge, network base, and ability to leverage all their connections to get the job done really struck me as something special.

By then, Catholic Charities had amassed a sizeable housing portfolio solely on grant funding but were faced with the risk and complexity of the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program to continue. Charities wanted to move their housing work into an organization that shared their ethos and drive at a time when Sister Lillian through Mercy Housing wanted to expand into California. It was a natural coming together. Sister Lillian played a pivotal role in convincing me that this was the right move and we soon transferred the entire housing department of Catholic Charities into Mercy Housing with me leading the endeavor. It was shockingly seamless and really changed the face of Mercy Housing and my career as well. I was the first person to come into the organization with a strong housing background. It was an explosion of opportunity — I felt free to go full steam ahead into the work that I wanted to do.

5. What were some pivotal moments in your career?

Coming over to Mercy Housing of course! When Sister Lillian convinced me, this organization was entirely led by women. I was expected to be a leader and my opinion mattered more than ever before — this was the most liberating experience of my life. As a woman working in a male-dominated organization, I made adjustments in my expectations. When I came to Mercy Housing I felt the freedom and support of being a woman in a leadership role, something I had never experienced before.

Another life-changing event was my experience with the Willmar 8. In 1976 a bank in Willmar, MN was systematically discriminating against women, underpaying and excluding them from promotion. One of the women contacted me, because I was a member of a woman’s justice organization, to ask for help in exposing this injustice. I took part in the efforts to right these injustices by marching in front of the bank, protesting the bank’s discriminatory practices, and did so, with colleagues, for a year. Along the way, I received hate mail and threats but remained committed. Subsequently, the women known as the Willmar 8 organized while the organization I was involved with supported their effort and legal costs. Eventually the women formed a union and went on strike. The effects of this event far exceeded this small town in Minnesota. A precedent was set by the Willmar 8 and the entire nation’s banks were pressured into being more inclusive and equitable for women. What I learned from the Willmar 8 experience, was a source of strength for my entire career and made it possible for me to fall in step with Mercy Housing’s founders to do what’s right, but not always easy.

6. What were some of the tougher decisions you made at Mercy Housing?

Over my 35-year career, I advocated for those experiencing homelessness, low-income families, seniors, and people with special needs by growing affordable housing that recognized the need for supportive services. Standing up to staunch opposition from city governments and neighborhood NIMBY-ism was always difficult, but incredibly rewarding.

In Mercy Housing’s early years, we focused on housing families and seniors and had not taken on the complex issues associated with those experiencing homelessness. I was approached by The Corporation for Supportive Housing and asked to consider expanding our work and help them focus on big solutions for homelessness. At that time, no one at Mercy Housing had experience with housing formerly homeless people. But the need was undeniable, and the plight of homeless individuals simply could not be ignored. I convinced the Board and management of Mercy Housing to put their resources toward this issue. Now, Mercy Housing is one of the largest nonprofit providers of housing for the formerly homeless in the country. Homelessness is human suffering at its worst. To ignore housing people because it’s difficult is based on fear, not courage.

More recently, choosing to get involved with Sunnydale community in San Francisco wasn’t an easy decision. This community has been plagued with crime, a lack of educational opportunity, and substandard housing — unfairly trapping people in a cycle of poverty. As the call to re-develop the area was announced, many feared there would be bad publicity; money would be lost, and anyone involved would inherit a mess. I knew that the Sunnydale development could be one of the most difficult and risky endeavors that myself and Mercy Housing could take on but probably the most profound work we could do. For those who suggested it was too risky, my reply was, “that is why we must do this.” At Sunnydale, I believe we have a chance to break the cycle of poverty. To dismiss it as too messy, was outside of my ethos and the core values of Mercy Housing. It took 11 years before ground was even broken. This was one of the largest subsidized housing communities in the state and the largest in the City of San Francisco. Sunnydale is the place we need to be because it is the place most in need. It came down to a culture of compassion for wanting to live up to Mercy Housing’s own promise.

7. What’s special about being in a leadership role at Mercy Housing?

I can’t stress enough how life-changing it was for me to come into Mercy Housing, an organization that really valued the opinion and leadership of women. It was so liberating for me and has been for many women. This was such a huge career highlight for me and was an empowering experience.

As an organization, I think we must continue to find innovative ways to break systemic oppression and ensuring that the values of our Founders, the communities of women religious are alive in our organization, are essential. The historic female leadership at all levels, including the board, has always been an important part of who we are and says a lot. Even though I’m not Catholic or a Sister, the Sisters always made me feel welcome and like one of them. In my opinion, the Sisters are the secret sauce of Mercy Housing. It’s been so rewarding to work with them, and I think that’s the key to success for the next CEO — honoring and understanding their strengths and resources — because the expertise and wisdom that the Sisters bring to the table can’t be replaced. Sister Lillian gave us a lot of latitude to be fearless and take calculated risks. She was always willing to go the extra mile. That willingness to go beyond where we’ve been: seeing the need to serve more people experiencing homelessness, taking financial risk when we were not certain of the outcome, changing our approach to allow access to more opportunity and resources to do something we knew little or nothing about but needed to be done — it’s how we’ve grown to be the best. If we want to continue to thrive as an organization, we must keep what’s made us so adaptable.

8. What’s next?

Well I like to joke with people that I never planned on being CEO of Mercy Housing, so why would I plan my retirement? For now, I’ll stay on some housing boards, travel, and see how things go from there. I’m excited for Mercy Housing. With our continued focus on the new Strategic Plan doubling down on our resident-centered approach and our diversity, equity, and inclusion work, the sky is the limit!