By MARY DELACH LEONARD
June 12, 2020
For more than 40 years, Jane Graf has championed efforts to provide safe, affordable housing for vulnerable Americans — the elderly, people with special needs, low-income families and those experiencing homelessness — because good health and a good home go hand in hand.
Jane Graf visits a Mercy Housing construction site in California in August 2006. Photo credit: Courtesy of Mercy Housing
"You can't be healthy and not have a decent place to live," said Graf, president and chief executive of Mercy Housing, the nation's largest affordable housing nonprofit.
"Everybody — I don't care who they are — deserves a decent place to live,'' she said during a recent interview. "It's just so basic to the human condition that if we can't do that, what is the matter with us?''
In recognition of her lifelong service, Graf is the recipient of the inaugural Sister Carol Keehan Award. The award was created in honor of Sr. Carol, who retired as CHA's president and chief executive officer last year. Throughout her life, Sr. Carol has been a champion of social justice and health care access for all — regardless of means, race, religion or creed. The award, which will be given annually, is earmarked for an individual who has boldly defended the poor and vulnerable, and courageously championed a cause that advanced the public good.
Graf's commitment to social justice is unwavering, said Charlie Francis, senior executive vice president of CommonSpirit Health. He serves on the board of trustees of Mercy Housing and has known Graf for years.
"The work that Jane is focused on to make sure that there's affordable housing for the vulnerable populations is foundational to who she is, and it is foundational to the common good and Catholic social teachings,'' Francis said.
He describes Graf as one of the best leaders he knows.
"She's an incredible human being with a capital 'H.' She's very approachable, very real,'' Francis said. "Her passion and her commitment to making the world a better place — and to the Mercy Housing mission and employees — is very, very deep.''
The lucky one
Graf joined Mercy Housing in 1992 to lead the organization's California regional office when the housing development offices of Catholic Charities and Mercy Housing merged. She was named president and chief executive of Mercy Housing in 2014.
Although she is retiring this summer, Graf plans to stay involved in the affordable housing sector and hopes to mentor young leaders. She serves on a number of boards of housing nonprofits, including the National Housing Trust.
Jane Graf, left, with Sr. Lillian Murphy, RSM, who was Mercy Housing's president and chief executive from 1987 to 2014. The photograph was taken in 2014 during Graf's transition to CEO. Graf credits the late Sr. Murphy for encouraging her to be an advocate for social justice. Photo credit: Courtesy of Mercy Housing
Graf has helped thousands of people through her work, but she insists that she is the lucky one.
"People are unbelievably brave and resilient, and the strength I get from meeting folks who have survived some pretty tough stuff is profound,'' Graf said.
It never gets old watching people, who have struggled for years, move into their new homes, she said.
"Those are amazing moments,'' Graf said. "It's really hard to get anywhere in life if you don't know where you're going to sleep, or if you're living in conditions that are so horrible you just can't get a break.''
Graf, who grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota, knew from a young age that she wanted a career helping people. She credits her parents with teaching her about fairness and social justice.
"I always had whatever I needed,'' she said. "It wasn't that we were wealthy, it was just that we had support. And seeing people without support, I had a lot of empathy for that.''
'No' is the wrong answer
After graduating from the University of Minnesota in the mid-1970s with a degree in sociology, Graf helped people with intellectual disabilities find jobs. She quickly recognized that housing was a major obstacle preventing them from living independently and reaching their potential. If they made too much income, they no longer qualified for subsidized housing and resources, something they would always need.
Graf decided that if she wanted to make a difference, she would need more knowledge. She attended graduate school at the University of Oregon, earning a master's degree in public affairs with a focus on housing issues that affected people with disabilities.
Looking back, Graf recalls a pivotal moment that fans her persistence to this day.
While serving as a housing specialist for the Association for Retarded Citizens of Oregon, Graf was determined to expand housing for people with developmental disabilities. During a meeting with a state housing agency official, he told her there were no resources — and he saw no role for nonprofit organizations in such an effort.
"It just infuriated me,'' Graf said. "Nobody was going to do it. But there was no role for a nonprofit. And I thought, 'Are you kidding? Because you can't imagine this, it won't be done.'''
Graf convinced three statewide nonprofits to back her concept. In 1981, she founded Specialized Housing Inc., a nonprofit housing development corporation in Oregon that serves people with developmental disabilities.
Learning on the fly
Graf describes herself as one of a generation of "self-taught'' housing advocates who learned to utilize resources and think creatively.
"When I got into the business, I took a commercial real estate course — the only thing that was available,'' she said. "I knew literally nothing other than the need was acute." To learn the ropes, Graf assembled a board with diverse expertise.
"I got one of everything I thought I needed — a Realtor, a guy who owned a construction company, a developer, a land use attorney, a banker,'' she said. "They taught me the real estate business.''
In this 1989 photo, Jane Graf, far left, then the president of Mercy Housing California, accepts a million dollar check from the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, along with Mercy Housing board member Suzanne Swift, second from left, and the late Sr. Lillian Murphy, RSM, third from left, then president and CEO of Mercy Housing. The Sisters of Mercy of Auburn and Burlingame, California, were joining Mercy Housing as co-sponsors. Photo credit: Courtesy of Mercy Housing
Graf also began forming partnerships with other nonprofits and government agencies — and she developed innovative programs with health care providers.
Among her many firsts: In 2001, Mercy's 93-unit Presentation Senior Community complex in San Francisco became one of the first in the Bay Area to incorporate an onsite day health and activity center and in-room support aimed at replicating assisted living not available for low-income seniors. As a result, elderly residents are able to live independently and avoid premature placement in nursing homes.
While working for Catholic Charities in 1987, Graf became one of the first in the nation to use the groundbreaking Low-Income Housing Tax Credit. She tapped it to develop the Peter Claver Community in San Francisco for low-income residents who have HIV/AIDS.
Graf credits the mentorship of the late Sr. Lillian Murphy, RSM, whom she succeeded as chief executive of Mercy Housing, for encouraging her to be a courageous advocate for social justice.
"She was so good when it came to recognizing that you needed to take risks if you were going to get anything of any significance done," Graf said.
Mercy Housing, established in 1981 and based in Denver, is sponsored by eight communities of Catholic sisters dedicated to social justice and serving the needs of people living on the margins of society. Mercy Housing, which operates in 41 states, is one of the nation's largest providers of housing for the formerly homeless and many of its buildings incorporate social services.
"The sisters are fearless,'' Graf said. "There is this feeling that if we see a problem and just because nobody knows how to fix it, that doesn't mean we shouldn't put resources to it and try to figure out how to respond.''
Honor in work
Val Agostino, who recently retired as Mercy's senior vice president of community impact and healthcare partnerships, said of Graf, "The riskier and scarier and harder something seemed, the more she would grasp onto it and figure out how to make it happen.''
Agostino said Graf rolls up her sleeves and pitches in. That includes helping staff at a Mercy property distribute food to residents who were hit hard by the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. "It's a really motivating thing for the people we're sending out to the front lines to know that the CEO of the organization gets that what they're doing is important.''
Safe at home
In a sense, the pandemic has intensified the importance of affordable housing.
"The only healthy, safe place is your home,'' Graf said. "I mean, that's what this whole thing has been saying to us. 'You are not safe, and you can't be healthy anywhere else right now.'''
Throughout her career, Graf has steered organizations through turbulent times, but nothing approaches a worldwide pandemic, she said.
"I used to tell folks that this is guerrilla warfare. You've got to come at it from every angle because there isn't a single answer,'' she said. "It's also going to take the ability to be flexible and to listen hard and make decisions when you really don't know what the answer is. Because we've never been here before.''
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