DENVER Sister Lillian Murphy easily recalls many of the families that have found a second chance at one of Mercy Housing's many developments.

There's the young mother who left home one night after her husband took out a gun and threatened to kill her in front of her four children. The woman took her kids and left with nothing. She ended up at Decatur Place, a transitional housing development in Denver. From there, she went on to attend a paralegal program and begin a new life.

A few months ago, Murphy met a formerly homeless women living at a Mercy Housing property in Sacramento, Calif., and asked her how her life had changed since moving in. The woman answered, “I have a shower. I can take a shower whenever I want.”

The moment served as a small but valuable reminder. “I thought, boy, do we take stuff for granted,” says Murphy.

CEO of Mercy Housing, she has led the nonprofit to become one the nation's largest and most prominent affordable housing developers.

Founded in 1981, the Denver-based group had a modest 220 units, 620 residents, and a staff of 20 when Murphy took the reins in 1987.

Today, it has developed, preserved, or helped finance 37,000 housing units nationwide, serves more than 124,000 people, and employs 1,200. It owns nearly 250 affordable housing properties, with more than 14,500 units.

“To every issue and occasion, Sister Lillian brings a knockout combination of moral force and a social entrepreneur's understanding of how to take a good idea to a scale that makes a real difference,” says Bill Kelly, president of the Stewards of Affordable Housing for the Future, a network of nine leading nonprofits, including Mercy Housing. “Not satisfied with having built Mercy Housing into a ”˜best of class' organization, she is still on the frontier, seeking enterprise-level capital, measuring social return on investment, and crafting services that enable residents to lead better lives.”

Other observers agree. “Sister Lillian has been a pioneer for affordable housing for many years,” says Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper. “Her standing as someone who cares but also delivers is without comparison.”

Connecting health and housing

Murphy is the seventh of eight children. Her father, an Irishman, never lost his brogue as he raised his family in San Francisco. He worked as an upholsterer for the Southern Pacific Railroad and chairman of his union. Once all the kids were in school, her mother worked for a wholesale grocer.

Joining the Sisters of Mercy in 1959, Murphy started her career in hospital administration. While working at St. Mary's Medical Center in San Francisco, she became involved in the development of Mercy Terrace, a seniors housing project, around 1980.

Several years later, Mercy Housing needed a new leader. “I said, ”˜Well I can do this for three to five years and then come back to health care.' That was 22 years ago,” says Murphy.

Over the years, the organization has developed a wide range of affordable housing. In a unique move, it has forged partnerships with nine major healthcare systems, which have helped provide residents with increased access to health care.

She has served on numerous industry boards and is a national spokeswoman for the cause of affordable housing. One of her favorite messages is that housing is a means to an end.

“The end is to provide opportunities for people to stabilize their lives and achieve their dreams, whatever those are,” she says.