Mar 2940 Years of Leadership – Jane Graf
Mercy Housing – Jane Graf – A Guiding Light (2014-2020)
“I’ve always believed that nothing is impossible.”
Some might say that Jane Graf was born to lead. When Sister Lillian Murphy announced her retirement from Mercy Housing in 2014, Jane was at the top of the list to lead the organization. She was the first person to be appointed as Mercy Housing’s CEO who was not a Sister.
Growing up in Minnesota, Jane knew from an early age that she wanted to pursue work involving social services. Aware that such work required a certain degree of fearlessness, Jane didn’t have to look far for a fearless role model…her mom.
“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.”
Jane Graf – The Believer
“If you think something is too hard, then you’re already defeated.”
With a passion to help others, Jane moved to Oregon following her graduation from the University of Minnesota, where she received a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Sociology. While in Oregon, she earned a Master’s Degree in Public Affairs from the University of Oregon.
Two degrees in hand, Jane took a job as the Housing Specialist at the Association of Retarded Citizens of Oregon at a time when mental health wards and state-run hospitals were forced to close.
“It was one of the most prolific deinstitutionalizations in history,” Jane said. Watching this unfold, Jane focused on finding ways to house developmentally disabled adults in the community.
“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.”
Thus, a new chapter began.
Jane Graf – The Advocate
In 1981, Jane founded the non-profit, Special Housing, Inc., a housing development organization that served people with developmental disabilities throughout the state of Oregon. During her 6-year tenure as Executive Director, Jane developed over 30 properties designed specifically to house adults with developmental disabilities. She was also instrumental in changing zoning laws state-wide and helped to influence the Oregon legislation to better serve and protect housing for people with special needs.
“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,” Jane explained.
Jane Graf meets Sister Lillian Murphy – A Friendship is Formed
Jane was directing the affordable housing work for Catholic Charities in San Francisco when she was introduced to Sister Lillian Murphy. Sister Lillian was bringing Mercy Housing into the California market and through a mutual connection, the two women met, and a special bond was formed.
“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 of their connections to get the job done really struck me as something special.”
Catholic Charities had a sizeable and long-standing housing portfolio that was funded solely by HUD grants. As the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program started, Catholic Charities decided to transition their housing work to an organization that shared their values and beliefs.
With Mercy Housing looking to expand in California, the partnership was a natural fit. In 1993, Mercy Housing acquired the Catholic Charities of San Francisco Housing Department. Mercy Housing California was born. Jane became the first person to join Mercy Housing with a strong housing background. She felt the freedom to move full steam ahead with the work that she wanted to do.
Jane Graf & Defining Moments
Every career comes with moments that can transform you. Moments of clarity. Moments of impact. For Jane Graf, there are two moments that made a huge difference for her.
- The Willmar 8: In 1976, a bank in Willmar, MN was systematically discriminating against women, underpaying, and excluding them from promotion. Jane was contacted because she was a member of a woman’s justice organization. The women wanted help in exposing the bank’s injustices. Jane being Jane, she wasted no time and took part in the efforts to right the wrongs, including marching in front of the bank and protesting the bank’s discriminatory practices.
Along with her colleagues, she joined protests for a year. She would receive hate mail and threats but wasn’t deterred from doing what she felt was right. The women she supported became known as The Willmar 8, eventually formed a union, and went on strike. Jane reflected on that experience, “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.”
- Mercy Housing: In 2014, Jane Graf was named just the third CEO in the history of Mercy Housing. “When Sister Lillian convinced me to join Mercy Housing, 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.”
A Career Comes Full-Circle
“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.”
“Fearless,” “bold,” “funny,” “passionate…” These are just a few words that come to mind when thinking about Jane Graf’s leadership at Mercy Housing.
Throughout the years, Jane played a critical role in helping the organization adapt to significant growth; overseeing the three organizational mergers that expanded the reach of Mercy Housing California. With her deep commitment to social justice, Jane held true to the vision and mission that the Sisters of Mercy established in 1981 – everything she did was grounded in our three core values: respect, justice, and mercy. She was a fearless and compassionate leader who demonstrated unconditional commitment to the employees of Mercy Housing. As she often said, our work is hard, and we cannot do it alone.
Highlights of Jane’s Accomplishments:
- Continued to strengthen Mercy Housing as the largest nonprofit housing developer in the country
- Responsible for the development of one of the first Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) properties in San Francisco, Peter Claver Community, just months after the LIHTC program became operational
- Named “Affordable Housing’s Influential Women” by Affordable Housing Finance Magazine
- Named “Enterprise Community Partner of the Year” by Enterprise Community Partners
- Recipient of the inaugural “Sister Carol Keehan Award” from the Catholic Health Association
- Chairwoman of the Board of the National Housing Trust
- Director, National Equity Fund
Jane retired in 2020 but continues to be an active volunteer in Mercy Housing communities.
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