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Posted: September 01, 2008

Executive Edge: Sister Lillian Murphy

Mercy Housing CEO shepherds Denver nonprofit's growth to 19,100 affordable units nationwide

Lynn Bronikowski

Sister Lillian Murphy will never forget the mother of four who fled to Decatur Place, an affordable housing development in Denver operated by Mercy Housing.

"She told me, ‘I finally left the night he put a gun to my head right in front of the kids,’" said Murphy, CEO of the Denver-based not-for-profit. The woman would go on to enroll in a paralegal program, find work and a new life.

That’s just one of some 59,000 people served daily by Mercy Housing — the story of "someone getting stabilized and achieving her dreams" — that keeps Murphy going in an era of mortgage crises, predatory lending and a 23.5 percent increase since 2006 in the newly homeless in Colorado alone. The housing organization operates 19,100 units of affordable housing in 41 states.

"It took years with many roadblocks to build an organization like this, but when I hear those kinds of stories, I can say all this brain damage is worth it," said Murphy, who joined Mercy Housing 21 years ago when it operated a mere 300 units.

Murphy is the daughter of an Irish merchant seaman, who jumped ship in Portland and made his way to San Francisco, and a savvy mother who worked as a grocery wholesaler and told her she could do anything she set her mind to. She joined the Sisters of Mercy in 1959, believing she’d be a teacher.

Instead, Murphy landed in health care for 16 years — at St. Mary’s Hospital in San Francisco and later Catholic Healthcare West. It was the turn in a career path that would make all the difference — ultimately allowing Mercy Housing to grow into the national organization it is today.

"I soon began to see the connections between health and housing," said Murphy, who holds a master’s degree in public health from the University of California at Berkeley and an undergraduate degree in social science from the University of San Francisco.

"Because of a lack of adequate housing, a mother would bring her kids to emergency rooms with asthma and other health conditions," she said. "We’d see cases of abuse, which grew out of frustration over not having a place to live. So when I joined Mercy Housing, I thought, ‘We can be the first step in keeping people out of your emergency rooms.’ Housing is fundamental to healthy living."

She and Mercy’s board convinced mostly large Catholic hospital networks to become "Strategic Healthcare Partners," participate in Mercy’s local boards and not only help assess housing needs but provide favorable financing and outright gifts to grow Mercy’s housing portfolio. Since 1998, the partnerships alone have developed 188 properties with 8,450 units worth $867 million. Another 3,200 units are under development.

Overseeing a staff of 1,100 who work out of five regional offices across the country, Murphy brings a for-profit business sense to the nonprofit, which recently has attracted business people willing to take a pay cut to come aboard to help fulfill Mercy’s mission.

In Denver, Mercy has aggressively bought and rehabbed more than 100 foreclosed HUD properties, sold them to low-income families and won accolades from HUD as a national leader in a program that other cities are duplicating.

"We connect families with reputable lenders and watch their dreams come true," said Murphy, who expects Mercy to have 70,000 housing units in its portfolio within the next five years and 100,000 over 10 years.

"The need is great and the days sometimes long," she said. "But it’s something that gives you enjoyment in life like this does. It’s not a burden."

Lynn Bronikowski is a freelance writer in Denver.

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