Don Terner legacy: low-cost housing, with dignity

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To the late developer I. Don Terner, freedom was more than a concept to celebrate at Passover each year.

With 6,000 low-income housing units built by his nonprofit company, Bridge Housing Corp., Terner gave low-income Bay Area residents freedom from the blight of living in slum-like projects or decrepit tenements.

But this year's Passover was Terner's last. The 56-year-old died Wednesday of last week in the plane crash over Croatia that also killed Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and 31 others.

Terner had held an early seder this year because of his trip to Bosnia. Relatives say he planned to hold another seder on his return and read the Passover Haggadah several times during the year.

At a packed memorial service held Friday of last week at Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco, Rabbi Brian Lurie, executive vice president of United Jewish Appeal, recalled Terner's fondness for Passover, and the holiday's message of liberation.

"Passover was his favorite Jewish holiday," said Lurie, former executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, in a phone interview. "The theme is taking people from slavery to freedom. He lived every day like that. He gave people dignity and a sense of self-worth."

About 800 friends and family members gathered to remember Terner and to praise his work on affordable housing. Speakers included Mayor Willie Brown, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry Cisneros and the Rev. Cecil Williams of Glide Memorial, with whom Terner was collaborating on a nearby housing project.

Terner is survived by wife Deirdre English, a prominent writer; son Michael from a former marriage; daughter Rebecca; and stepchildren Jonah and Sarah Cave.

After years of being what Lurie called "not Jewish in a conventional sense, not a belonger," Terner was delving into the organized Jewish community for the first time.

Just days before his trip, he met with Anita Friedman, executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services, to discuss the construction of an assisted-living facility for seniors.

Terner was volunteer co-chair of the committee in charge of building what Friedman calls "the largest project the [Jewish] community will undertake in this generation."

He told Friedman before his trip that this was his way of reconnecting with the Jewish community. Though he had won the Koret Israel Prize in 1990, he was unable to visit the Jewish state on the scheduled visit accompanying the award.

"This was the project he chose, to do something to help the Jewish community. His leadership would have been an enormous contribution. It's a great loss. Unfortunately, we will not benefit from his great creativity and skill," said Friedman.

Terner's colleagues say he invigorated the world of low-cost housing by hatching new financing schemes; Bridge Housing was considered one of the most successful nonprofit developers in the country, along with Habitat for Humanity.

Born in New Jersey, Terner earned three degrees from Harvard University, in architecture, city planning, and urban and regional economics. He taught at Harvard and MIT, and served as California's director of housing and community development before joining Bridge in 1983.

Associates say his ability to understand and juggle the worlds of banking and building helped him prove that low-income housing didn't have to be cheap and didn't have to lower property values.

"He acted like a for-profit developer," said Alan Rothenberg, investment banker and incoming president of the JCF who worked with Terner on low-income housing. "He was resourceful, pushing the edges of what he could get for tenants."

Scattered throughout the Bay Area are legacies to Terner's dedication to building attractive housing. Rothenberg points to a development across from San Francisco's Kezar Stadium.

"He took a crowded site, cleared off these high school buildings and made townhouses for families. He kept the gyms available for residents and neighbors. It was a very clever compromise," said Rothenberg.

Recalling a visit with Terner to one of his senior developments, Rothenberg described the builder as "knowing every tenant.

"He had a fatherly pride," added Rothenberg. "He didn't just build something and move on. A part of his soul stayed there."

Daughter Rachel, 31, understands Terner's devotion perhaps better than anyone. After following in his footsteps — she began working for the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board in New York last year — she says he was "extremely proud, embarrassingly so. He'd tell everyone."

Now, she says she will carry on her father's mission in nonprofit housing.

"He believed in self-help," she said. "He did not believe in solving problems without the participation of those whom he was helping."