Real Estate

Plenty of room in senior community

Housing-market downturn impacts Moldaw residences

Moldaw Family Residences, an independent and assisted-living community for seniors located at 899 East Charleston Road in Palo Alto, opened in October 2009 -- just in time for the housing-market collapse. Falling far short of initial projections for occupancy, Moldaw has had to get creative about attracting new residents.

"This community was planned seven years ago," said Marilyn Israel, Moldaw's executive director. "It was a different world at that point."

During 2011, the community has experienced strong growth in new resident move-ins -- 30 units will be newly filled by year's end. In total, 93 of the 176 one-, two- and three-bedroom units taking up eight four-story buildings currently have tenants.

But in September 2009, 70 percent of the units were spoken for -- so quite a few prospective residents were scared off. Six months after opening, only 40 units had been filled.

"That coincides with the way the economy went," Israel said. "A big part of leaving a home is the financial piece, and people are afraid to sell. Our biggest competitor is people's homes."

Though Moldaw has cut prices where possible, apartments range in price from $270,000 to $1.1 million depending on size. Monthly fees -- which cover utilities, maintenance, classes, transportation, valet parking and more -- run from $2,000 to $5,800. Some units are offered at below market rate, in keeping with Moldaw's nonprofit mission.

"We have a fund that will hopefully grow with time, to support residents who might run out of money," Israel added.

Israel said it used to be "typical" for communities like Moldaw to fill in 18 months. When that goal wasn't reached, the community had to make some changes to its loan agreement.

"We lengthened the projection, and in order to do so we needed additional capital to continue operating," she said.

As part of that debt restructuring, Moldaw has engaged two firms, Greystone Communities and Martino & Binzer, to provide marketing and branding assistance with the end goal of building and retaining occupancy at the pace of at least two move-ins per month.

"Right now we're far exceeding that," Israel said.

Tim Mallad, first vice president of management services for Greystone, said the new marketing plan has already yielded results since its implementation in June.

"The biggest challenge is convincing prospects to move from their homes to a community," he said. "Palo Alto is a very good market and home sales have been good, so we've hit a really good stride right now."

Mallad said the ultimate measure of success will be filling the building by "providing good resident services and having high resident satisfaction. When you have happy residents and happy employees, you get the full building."

"Our best marketing is that we now have happy residents," Israel agreed.

Indeed, Moldaw has actively leveraged that resource. Residents who refer new tenants receive a financial incentive, and some even serve as "resident ambassadors," whose duties involve mingling with prospects at happy hours.

Every touch has a significant impact on a prospective resident's eventual decision to relocate.

"Moving to a community such as ours typically has a long sales cycle -- it is common for the decision to take 18 months or longer," Israel said. "In this economy, studies show that it often takes seven visits by prospective residents before a decision is made. I believe some of our recent successes stem from the fact that some of the depositors have been in that long cycle, and they view the decision as the right one after careful due diligence."

Robert Shelley and his wife have been at the Moldaw residences since April, moving back from Southern California after a 55-year gap. Their key motivation was to be closer to their daughter, who lives in Atherton.

"Frankly, we've wanted to come back to this area almost ever since we left it. It was an easy decision for us. This was the ninth place we looked at. We ended up in Moldaw because we seem to fit here better than every place else we saw," Shelley said.

Shelley, who is 84, describes himself and his wife as "very active, very mobile. I drive, she drives." Besides being near their daughter, he said, they were very attracted to living in Palo Alto with its access to "restaurants, theater, entertainment, shopping, just everything. ...

"From where I sit in my living room, I look out and I see Hoover Tower.

"It's a very easy place to live. You can partake in many of the activities or you can choose not to. ... The feeling of camaraderie is wonderful. ... You feel like you've been here for months since the very first day."

Israel stressed that the best apartments are going fast. For now, residents can still chose what building, floor and wing they want -- but courtyard and fourth-floor units are almost gone, and the one- and three- bedroom spaces are filling up.

Outside of 11 memory support units and six assisted-care units, no continuing care is provided, but that doesn't seem to be a major deterrent for potential residents, Israel said. A wellness nurse is on site 40 hours per week, and residents have priority at San Francisco's Jewish Home, a sponsor and developer of the community.

"Most people, with a little support, can remain independent for a long time," Israel said.

Small design touches -- such as glass-covered hallways connecting the buildings, handrails in the corridors and curb-less showers -- also make Moldaw a subtly easier place to live.

Israel and other staff members have worked hard to ensure that, once moved in, residents have plenty to keep them occupied. The fitness complex and performing arts center on the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center campus offer extensive programming, and these and other events are advertised to the residents on various bulletin boards and TVs around Moldaw and through calendars delivered to the residents' mailboxes.

"This community is really designed for baby boomers, because it's active and socially conscious," Israel said.

Activities include movie nights, mahjong, a knitting group, discussions of current events and an art show. A scrapbook in the lobby showcases residents' enjoyment of past events.

And residents have only one gripe about the food -- it's too good.

"My biggest complaint is they're gaining too much weight," Israel said. "I tell them to go to the fitness center."

One of Israel's favorite times of day at Moldaw is dinner -- she called it "a family gathering." And she's excited for the day when the dining room is consistently filled.

"Having so many new faces brings new energy," she said.

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