Zach Meyer

The AMCAL group of companies began in Percival Vaz’s Southern California home—more specifically, in half of the two-car garage where he and his wife, Lux, had placed two desks, two filing cabinets, a crib, and a fan. The couple juggled watching their young daughters while fielding business calls.

“We would tell the kids to be very quiet if the phone rang,” recalls Vaz.

He would hustle, looking for sites to develop and working with local planning officials. Lux handled the accounting and the important back office work that kept them on track.

From these modest beginnings in the late 1970s, the fledgling company has grown into one of the top developers and owners of affordable and market-rate housing throughout the West and South. Over the past 44 years, the organization, with Vaz as CEO, has developed more than 100 communities with 10,000-plus units for families, seniors, and, more recently, college students.

Armed with an entrepreneurial spirit, Vaz emigrated to California from India in the mid-1960s to study electronics, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UCLA, with plans to return to his home country to open an electronics assembly plant.

However, his interests soon shifted. While searching for a home for his family, Vaz saw how housing prices were quickly appreciating and recognized that real estate offered an interesting opportunity. He teamed with a home builder to develop several single-family homes in Southern California, serving as a gofer and learning real estate development.

Vaz soon earned a contractor’s license and struck out on his own to develop a 10-unit apartment complex in Hollywood, which led to the start of AMCAL, a joining of America and California for its name.

The company grew slowly, organically, in its early years before two pivotal events changed its path.

The first came in 1994 when AMCAL did its first institutional equity deal with the California Public Employees’ Retirement System on a market-rate development in Oak Park, California. Partnering with the large pension fund forced the company to improve its systems and add more checks and balances.

The second transformational moment came a few years later when AMCAL found a site to develop in Santa Barbara, California. “The county said to us ‘We desperately need affordable housing. Would you consider doing that instead of condominiums or market-rate housing?’” says Vaz.

Local officials told him that they would help him build an affordable housing development, including providing a soft loan. The 118-unit Positano Apartments became the firm’s first affordable housing deal.

“Affordable housing matched very well with our skill set and our limitations,” Vaz says. “When we were building market-rate housing we were competing with huge public home builders and large REITs, which is hard to do. We had done market-rate development without subsidies so we focused on efficient design and keeping the costs down. That helped when developing affordable housing.”

The company has gone on to create a number of significant projects, including the rehabilitation of the abandoned Linda Vista Community Hospital in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles into 120 affordable apartments for seniors. The $38.2 million effort, which was done as two separate projects, returns the property to a good use and boosts the entire area.

It’s a memorable project for Alice Carr, who helped finance the development as well as others for AMCAL when she was head of community development banking at JPMorgan Chase.

The adaptive-reuse of the Linda Vista hospital managed to create new affordable housing while preserving a historic building, says Carr, who was also then board chair of the Los Angeles Conservancy, which recognized the project with one of its coveted awards.

“Percy is very thoughtful and insightful,” says Carr, now CEO of April Housing, an affordable housing company. “He’s also really reliable. If he said he was going to do something, he did it.”

Extended Reach

More recently, AMCAL has expanded beyond its home state. It entered the Texas market as AMTEX in 2012 and has completed the construction, purchase, and rehab of more than 3,000 units with another 2,500 units in development or pre-development. The company also expanded north, completing the 255-unit Cedar Pointe, an affordable senior housing community in Arlington, north of Seattle.

In addition, Vaz has led the company into the student housing business. AMCAL Equities has completed five student housing communities with 1,014 units (3,702 beds), including a big, 1,039-bed community named The Grad near San Jose State University that was completed in 2020 during the height of the pandemic.

Beyond bricks and mortar, AMCAL delivers social services to affordable housing residents by working with different partners. Its efforts have included working with nonprofit LifeSTEPS to establish the Partnership for HOPE program, which has raised $830,000 in college scholarships, emergency assistance, and youth enrichment activities support over the past 11 years for eligible AMCAL residents.

Through the growth and changes, Percival and Lux Vaz, who have been married 51 years, remain at the helm. Lux is a senior vice president, who oversees accounting, administration, and human resources.

The couple has four daughters and three grandchildren. One daughter, Nicole, is director of project accounting at AMCAL. President Arjun Nagarkatti, who has been with the firm for more than 30 years, has been another key figure in the company’s growth. Nagarkatti, an architect, was initially involved with the design and entitlement of projects, but his responsibilities steadily increased as the company grew and now oversees all of the departments.

“Percy is the kind of entrepreneur that embodies the very essence of hard work, giving spirit, and humble found story that has built this country from the ground up,” Nagarkatti says.

After more than 40 years, Vaz and his team are beginning to think about a succession plan for when he decides to retire. He and his company have come a long way from the days when it was starting out in a garage.

“I never would have imagined it,” he says.