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PHILADELPHIA-Investment and development firm AMC Delancey Group Inc. has spun off an affiliate company focused on the seniors housing sector. Delancey Senior Living will focus on developing, investing in and operating independent senior living communities within a 100-mile radius of AMC’s headquarters here.

AMC Delancey’s executive vice president and chief investment officer, Michael Wachs, has taken on the role of president and chief operating officer. He will head up the new company as well as manage AMC Delancey’s other investments and strategies.

For AMC Delancey, the move marks a return to its roots as a real estate operator, relates the executive. When the firm was first established by Kenneth P. Balin in 1992, says Wachs, it handled all components of a deal itself, including operations. “Around 2000 or 2001, we basically transitioned out of operations and focused on managing the assets and providing equity to operating partners,” he explains. “Over the past seven years, we’ve been partnering with operators on real estate deals from multifamily and industrial to retail and hospitality. We brought not just the dollars and capital, but also strategic planning and asset management. But because we’re real estate guys first as opposed to investment management or financial guys, over time, we decided it was time to go back to having a direct management component. When we looked at the future and how to continue to be successful going forward, we realized we wanted to add back operating capabilities.”

AMC Delancey chose to focus on the independent living space because it is less regulated and less intensive in terms of providing care than other segments of the senior living market, says Wachs. Plus, he adds, these communities are akin to hospitality assets in terms of the services they offer. “We spent a considerable amount of time looking at all the business lines we were in,” he says. “We decided the senior living sector had the most opportunity for someone like us who can add value.”

The firm had ventured into the seniors housing business two years ago through its partnership with Heritage Senior Living. That 120-unit project, Traditions of Hershey in Palmyra, PA, opened earlier this year. The firms plan to break ground next year on another community in Reading, PA.

“We have a couple of other projects that are in the process with Heritage, but we realized we needed to build our own capabilities, have more control and direct our vision and cater to the need in this market. We have the capital to do many of these, and our goal is to do a lot. We need to enhance our management capabilities to do all that.”

Accordingly, all future seniors housing projects will be built and operated solely under Delancey Senior Living, though Wachs isn’t ruling out future partnerships with Heritage. The firm’s primary focus right now is on acquiring land on which it can develop new properties. The executive expects Delancey to have two to three buildings under way within the next 12 months.

On the capital side, he says, “we expect to use our own funds and that of high net worth investors we’ve worked with in the past. But if opportunities arise to work with other investors such as institutions, we would consider it. In that case, we may do a specific fund for a series of buildings.”

Indeed, seniors housing as an asset class is steadily gaining in popularity among developers and investors of all stripes. Even institutions have moved from merely dabbling in the space to allocating funds specifically for senior living investments, particularly for independent living. What differentiates Delancey Senior Living from the other new players in the field, says Wachs, is its operating platform. “This has been in the planning stage for several years, so this is not a capital markets-driven decision,” he says. “Good deals always find money.”

And while most of the story when it comes to seniors housing is focused on the future–particularly, the expected rise in demand due to the Baby Boom generation–Wachs maintains that the need in the market today is more than enough to generate business.

Indeed, fundamentals for the independent living space are strong despite the down economy. In the first quarter of the year–the most recent data available from the National Investment Center for the Seniors Housing and Care Industry–the average occupancy rate for independent living stood at 92.1%, a 330-basis-point increase from three years earlier. Operators also reported that they were able to push up rents as well.

“We’re not investing today for something that’s going to work in 30 years,” says Wachs. “We’re investing today because there’s a need today for a new product that addresses the wants and desires for that segment of the market. We’re giving them a higher quality than the existing product that’s out there.”

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