Leader, determined, talented, funny, focused and passionate are just a handful of words that come to mind among Jane Graf’s colleagues in the affordable housing industry. And now, the word retired joins that list as she closes out an accomplished career at Mercy Housing.
At the end of April 2020, Jane Graf retired from her 33 years at Mercy Housing. Jane started with the organization in 1987 and took on the role of President and CEO in 2014. During her tenure, Mercy Housing became the largest non-profit housing developer in the nation.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Jane recognized deep down the importance of her life’s work.
“How in the world can we have a just world when some people have the ability to shelter in place and others do not,” Jane said. “It’s not hard to get passionate about something like this when you look at what people are faced with. What could be more important than assuring that people have access to housing that they can afford, and that’s quality, and where they can thrive?”
Jane Graf understood early on in her life that affordable housing is a matter of justice. In 1981, she founded Specialized Housing Inc. in Oregon which provided adults with special needs the ability to live independently and affordably. From there, Jane moved to San Francisco and directed the affordable housing work for Catholic Charities. It was during that time that Jane started working alongside longtime Mercy Housing President & CEO Sr. Lillian Murphy. Eventually, the entire Northern California housing department of Catholic Charities transferred over to Mercy Housing and Jane took on a leadership role.
“It was an explosion of opportunity,” Jane said. “I felt free to go full steam ahead into the work I wanted to do.”
Jane also says going to work at Mercy Housing was the most life-changing experience of her life because it was run by strong women, the Sisters of Mercy.
“I had never been in an environment where people looked at risk the way the sisters do.. they’re fearless,” Jane said. “This is serious business, making sure that people have access to housing. And, when you’re calm and responding to something that feels really catastrophic, it’s because these women we work with are our rock.”
“I think Jane’s impact is one of passion, a vision of transparency and forcefulness,” Mercy Housing Board of Trustees Chair Sr. Linda Werthman, RSM said. “When she believes in something, you need to be as convinced of your position and Jane will listen. She talks to the staff and she inspires the staff. When she goes out to the town hall meetings, when she is in meetings at the national level, no one can mistake where her passion is.”
Jane was the first non-religious CEO of Mercy Housing. And when she retired, Mercy Housing brought on board its first ever male President and CEO. Another longtime affordable housing advocate, Ismael Guerrero, formerly with Denver Housing Authority, is now leading the organization in its mission to create stable, vibrant and healthy communities.
Kyle Dyer Storytelling originally had in mind a much different tribute story to Jane Graf. We were going to travel out to San Francisco where she was based and talk with many of her colleagues who have witnessed Jane’s impact over the last three decades. When COVID hit, our plans pivoted. We met up with Jane at the end of April when she and Ismael ran virtual employee meetings out of the Denver headquarters. The office was empty and the skeleton staff that helped with the online conferences were all wearing masks. There was no going away luncheon or big send off. However, at Mercy Housing’s Just Imagine fundraiser in September 2020, Jane was recognized, honored and celebrated by colleagues and friends tuning into the virtual program from all over the United States.
“In some ways, it’s nice to leave this way because it’s so hard to say ‘goodbye’ in person to people,” Jane said. “Instead, we’re putting this on hold and we’ll say goodbye when we all can be together. I don’t really see this as ending my time at Mercy Housing. It’s just a new chapter in my involvement in Mercy Housing.”
Jane continues to volunteer at a Mercy Housing community in California and she is a dedicated and effective fundraiser for the organization.
“COVID has really elevated our awareness of how unequal and how uneven the playing field is for people when it comes to housing,” Jane said. “We need to give back and we need to give back in a meaningful way, not just talk about it.”
Some of Jane’s closest colleagues recorded tributes to her on their mobile phones and sent them to Kyle Dyer Storytelling (people we would have talked to personally if not limited because of health precautions). We produced this short vignette of well wishes that was played for Jane at a virtual going away party that followed the Just Imagine fundraiser in September. That evening was a fantastic event for Mercy Housing in which supporters donated more than $650,000.
“I am incredibly proud of everybody that’s been involved with Mercy Housing,” Jane said. “And, I feel incredibly lucky because the strength of this organization is in its roots. Those deep roots and our values are what really guide us in so many ways.”