The AMCAL Story: Developing Affordable Housing with a Pinch of the Supernatural

5 min read

Among affordable housing projects, Linda Vista Senior Apartments in Los Angeles has a unique and haunting backstory.

The existing historic buildings making up the project, now being redeveloped by AMCAL Multi-Housing, were originally built in the early 1900s by the Santa Fe Railroad as a hospital for railroad employees. It later operated as Linda Vista Community Hospital until it closed in 1991. During a long vacancy the six-story main hospital building and premises have been a popular location for numerous movies, including In the Line of Fire (Clint Eastwood, 1992) and Pearl Harbor (2001); television shows (e.g., Buffy the Vampire Slayer, NCIS: Los Angeles episode); and even music videos. Some have also said the Mission Style Revival hospital building is haunted; it’s been the site of several paranormal investigations, including one by Ghost Adventures, a Travel Channel television show about ghost hunters.

In the 2000s the hospital was sold to a private developer, who planned to convert the building to condos. That venture fell through, and AMCAL Multi-Housing purchased the property in 2011. The company is currently renovating the former nurses’ dormitory into 23 affordable apartments for seniors and plans to redevelop the main hospital building later to create another 97 affordable senior apartments.

Linda Vista Senior Apartments, the company’s first historic rehabilitation project, is but one of many housing developments undertaken by AMCAL. Founded in 1978 by CEO Percy Vaz, the Agoura Hills, Calif.-based AMCAL (short for America California) has a handful of subsidiaries, including: AMCAL Equity, which develops luxury apartments; AMCAL Homes, a home builder; AMCAL General Contractors; and others. Perhaps the best known, though, is AMCAL Multi-Housing, which develops affordable multifamily rental housing.

LIHTC Is the Ticket

“Our bread and butter is low-income housing tax credits,” says AMCAL President Arjun Nagarkatti, who joined the company in 1988. “We have completed approximately 45 LIHTC projects with a tad over 4,000 units, all in California,” he notes. “We operate in northern, central, and southern California – everywhere from Sacramento to San Diego.”

In 2011, the company ventured outside California for the first time, into Texas.
Since 1997 the company has developed both 9% and 4% housing credit projects – almost all new construction – for low-income families and seniors though with some special needs developments in recent years. The projects have been diverse in size, density (12 to 104 units per acre), and construction type (e.g., garden apartments, two-story walkups, large mid-rise buildings). Many of AMCAL’s housing projects, affordable and market-rate, have achieved LEED certification. AMCAL constructs its projects but outsources property management.

When asked the affordable housing development of which he is proudest, Vaz balks at singling out just one. “We’re proud of all of them” he says. But Vaz notes that the company’s largest project so far – one garnering media attention and awards – is Avenue 26, a mixed-income transportation-oriented master plan development in the Lincoln Heights section of Los Angeles, built in 2006-2007 on a 10-acre former industrial site contiguous to the Metro Gold Line station.
The development consists of four separate housing projects. Three are LIHTC developments: Flores del Valle, 146 units for families; Tesoro del Valle, 121 apartments for families; and Camino al Oro, 102 apartments for seniors. The fourth, Puerto del Sol, contains 165 market-rate condos and retail businesses.

A Platform for Improving Lives

Vaz says AMCAL’s mission on the affordable side of the business is to build “great looking” developments for low-income and senior tenants that not only provide residents with high-quality housing but also act as a springboard to hopefully transition them to greater self-sufficiency and upward mobility in life.
To do this, AMCAL provides its residents with extensive supportive services delivered by LifeSTEPS, a prominent California nonprofit with offices statewide. These services, which vary by project based on the tenant profile, include after-school programs for children, programs for seniors, and the like.

“We’ve worked with LifeSTEPS for many, many years,” says Vaz. “But in the last two years we’ve stepped it up significantly.” AMCAL holds an annual fair to raise donations for LifeSTEPS, inviting all its residents, subcontractors, funding partners, public officials, and others. The proceeds raised in 2012 were used to fund college scholarships for 12 AMCAL residents, youth sports league fees, rent subsidies for unemployed families, and other purposes. AMCAL’s partnership with nonprofits extends well beyond LifeSTEPS, though. According to Vaz, a local nonprofit is the co-general partner in each of AMCAL’s affordable housing projects.

Current Challenges

Nagarkatti says AMCAL Multi-Housing’s biggest challenge today is trying to find soft gap funds for LIHTC projects, particularly in California to replace the void left by the termination of the local redevelopment agencies and the redevelopment funds and land they provided for affordable housing projects for decades.

Vaz similarly laments federal, state, and local budget cuts that have shrunk the pool of available subsidies for new affordable housing developments. “We’ve learned to do a lot more with less,” he notes. Vaz also worries that any forthcoming tax reform legislation, if it reduces corporate tax rates, could reduce housing tax credit prices to developers.

Today the company is working on seven LIHTC projects – six in California and one in a suburb of Houston, Texas. Vaz says AMCAL expanded into Texas because it is a good market and big state with a large amount of allocated 9% housing credits. “We’re also taking a look at Arizona,” he adds. “We had a portfolio of apartments that we owned in Arizona, it’s a one-hour flight, and we’re comfortable with the politics and geography and have a network of folks we know.”

Vaz sums it up: “It’s interesting, challenging times. But it always is; it’s always changing.”