Jane Graf recently stepped into the role of COO of Mercy Housing, one of the nation's largest affordable housing developers and owners.
Prior to taking on this assignment, Graf was president of Mercy Housing California, which develops throughout the state. During the past 17 years, she has helped the nonprofit grow throughout the Western region, including the development of more than 12,000 units of affordable housing in three states.
Affordable Housing Finance recently caught up with Graf to find out how she got started in the business and what's coming next.
Q: What was your first job in affordable housing?
A: I began in the field by working with a community group to secure Department of Housing and Urban Development financing for a group home to serve developmentally disabled adults. I wrote the grant request, and to my utter surprise it was funded on the first try.
Q: What drew you to work in this field?
A: I was working as a job placement coordinator at an organization that did job training for developmentally disabled adults. I placed individuals in paying jobs in the community only to discover that as soon as they succeeded in getting a job, they lost all their benefits and then lost their housing. I became incensed at the injustice in the “system” and became a strong advocate to find housing alternatives.
Q: What will you focus on in your new role as COO?
A: Staying ahead of the ever-changing world of affordable housing and making sure that Mercy Housing is strong and current in all of the solutions necessary to tackle this ever-growing problem.
Q: How is Mercy Housing changing?
A: We are always changing—responding to market shifts, funder shifts, ever-changing political environment, the needs of our residents ”¦ the list goes on. In order to meet our mission, Mercy Housing has an obligation to continue to change.
Q: You were involved in developing many different projects and expanding Mercy Housing in California. What strategy or move was key to that growth?
A: Focus and execution. We have been successful because our partners—government, lenders, investors, donors—know that we can get the job done, and we stand by our commitment. That has been the key driver to our success.
Q: Describe your dream project.
A: Impossible! Every project that we do has a piece of my heart in it, and I could never select just one. The most gratifying thing is seeing the profound impact that our housing has on the residents whether that be a senior faced with homelessness, a family struggling to makes ends meet, or a person with disabilities facing institutional care. When you see the relief on their faces and the weight of the world lifted, that is my dream project.
Q: Share with us a statistic or fact about affordable housing to think about.
A: The “senior tsunami” that we are facing over the next 10 to 15 years will have dramatic impact on the face of affordable housing. We will be facing unprecedented numbers of seniors who will live longer than ever before with fewer retirement resources and an ever-growing lack of housing options. We need to get busy.
Q: What lesson should affordable housing developers take away from the recent recession?
A: You are experiencing the most incredible learning environment since the Great Depression. The collapse of the housing market and subsequent collapse of the banking system should be a lesson in humility at the very least. Pay attention and don't forget.
Q: If you weren't working in affordable housing, what would you be doing?
A: I would be in the nonprofit sector working on issues of social and economic justice in some capacity. Or, in the travel industry leading tours in far-flung places.
Q: What's the best business advice that you have received?
A: The best “life” advice that I apply to business on a daily basis was from my grandmother who said something to the effect of “don't get excited about what doesn't really matter and accept different points of view.” She was a very wise woman.
Q: Favorite fictional hero and why?
A: Robin Hood for all the obvious reasons.
Q: Favorite book?
A: No favorite. Too many to choose from.
Q: Who would you like to meet and why?
A: Hillary Clinton. She is the role model of a strong woman with a superior intellect that has had a profound impact on the world. She is in my age cohort and never ceases to impress me regardless of the issue.
Q: When you are not working, where would we find you?
A: Traveling in foreign countries or at the beach.
Q: What's next for Jane Graf?
A: Oh goodness—that is an overwhelming question. Someday, in retirement, I hope to be a really good volunteer and mentor for young leadership. I love watching smart young people step into the affordable housing space.