Struggling families, aging seniors, people with HIV, and others with disabilities have a place to live because of Jane Graf. She has relentlessly developed homes for the most vulnerable for four decades, including the last five years as president and CEO of Mercy Housing, the nation’s largest nonprofit owner of affordable housing with more than 23,000 units.

Jane Graf
Courtesy Mercy Housing Jane Graf

“Creating desperately needed housing opportunities through developing affordable housing is challenging, intellectually stimulating, fast paced, and creative,” she says. “And, the benefit of seeing the results of your labor, albeit often many years later, is incredibly satisfying. It’s a career that combines the need for highly skilled business skills in real estate with a social impact purpose that gets me up every day with the desire to dig in and make it happen.”

From the time she was young, Graf thought she would work in social services and studied sociology in college. Early on in her career, she placed adults with intellectual disabilities in jobs, only to then find that once they were working and getting paid they would lose their public benefits and their housing. Seeing the unfairness in this, Graf soon became immersed in housing issues.

She went on to graduate school, began working to solve the problem, and despite the warnings of people who said a nonprofit couldn’t develop affordable housing for this population, she eventually founded Specialized Housing in Oregon in 1980. “My feeling was we have to do it,” Graf says. “There’s not an option. It’s not about it can’t be done. It must be done.”

Graf, who was still new to real estate, assembled a board made up of different experts that she thought she needed, including an attorney, a contractor, and an individual from a title company, and began buying single-family homes to convert into group homes. They later began developing properties throughout the state.

This puts Graf in a unique group of developers building affordable housing before the creation of the low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC) program in 1986.

She later took her hard-earned experience and sense of mission to Catholic Charities as the director of housing development in San Francisco, doubling affordable housing production over the next several years, including completing one of the first LIHTC developments in the city shortly after the program became operational.

A merger between the housing development department of Catholic Charities and Mercy Housing led to the creation of Mercy Housing California, with Graf becoming president of the California region in 1993. She would later be named Mercy Housing COO before moving up to the top post and becoming the first layperson to lead to the organization.

“Mercy’s strong focus on mission is a testament to Jane’s leadership in addition to her focus on quality real estate and strong finances,” says Eileen Fitzgerald, who recently became head of Wells Fargo’s housing affordability philanthropy after serving as president and CEO of Stewards of Affordable Housing for the Future. “No one ever questions whether Mercy is a mission-focused affordable houser—they truly lead the field on that.”

Graf was involved early on in the organization’s decision to take on the challenging redevelopment of San Francisco’s largest public housing development, the 50-acre Sunnydale project. As a result, Mercy Housing California is part of a team that is replacing the old public housing, adding mixed-income housing, and creating new educational and recreational opportunities on the site. “I do believe Sunnydale, once it’s complete, will be one of the most important things that we’ve done as an organization,” she says. “It will be transformative.”

Graf was also instrumental in expanding the group’s reach. In its early years, Mercy Housing focused largely on assisting families, including single mothers and their children. Graf helped the organization expand into housing for seniors and people who were homeless.

“Jane was open to the conversation,” says Carla Javits, former president and CEO of the Corporation for Supportive Housing, who was advocating for groups to develop more housing for people who were homeless in the late 1990s. “Jane uniquely was one who said, ‘This is something we should be doing.’ She just wanted to figure out how to do it well, which was her hallmark. She was willing to take things on, but she wanted to make sure they could do it with quality.”

With Graf’s steady hand, Mercy Housing has become a leader in providing permanent supportive housing. “It’s compelling, and it’s incredibly hard,” she says. “It’s some of the most important work we do.”

Unafraid of a challenge, Graf has been in good company with the Catholic sisters who’ve been behind Mercy Housing. “They’re fearless, they’re smart, and they do the impossible,” she says, explaining that they’ve put their resources and reputations behind the organization, including providing $500,000 in seed money that started it all. Her team has also included her late husband, Rich.

After years of being a strong industry presence, Graf plans to retire in 2020. Throughout her career, she was never one to plot out her path, allowing herself to be pulled in directions that made sense at the time and do what was right for people who needed housing.

“For me, it [affordable housing] was the perfect combination, being in the nonprofit sector met my social agenda,” she says. “I could never imagine doing this work with the sole purpose of creating profit. From my first exposure to the need for affordable housing, the sole motivation for me was making sure that everyone has quality shelter; access to housing they can afford— which I believe is a human right. And in my 40-year career, we have not solved the problem, but we have made a huge difference in the lives of many. That’s why I stayed.”