Changemakers: Arun Paul, Founder, Priya Living

Changing the senior living landscape has always been a cornerstone of Priya Living, under the leadership of its founder, Arun Paul. From marketing the company’s independent living communities as “Where Bombay Royale Meets Palm Springs,” to listing unit pricing directly on the company’s homepage, Paul has in many instances acted directly in contrast to what’s trending in senior living.

Yet, he didn’t exactly set out to turn the model on its head; he simply saw a demand for something different and through work and perseverance, brought the concept to fruition. Today, Priya operates three communities in California, has a growing pipeline, and a new capital partner in Welltower (NYSE: WELL). With a model based on a la carte, on-demand services for independent residents, in communities inspired by Indian culture, Paul continues to lead change in the senior living industry by constantly challenging the status quo and adapting to new factors, including the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

Senior Housing News: Tell me the origin story of Priya Living.

Arun Paul: I come from outside the industry. My personal background was hospitality, primarily, so it was building and operating resorts. It was a lot of fun. I enjoyed it. At the same time, I was thinking about my parents. I’m an only child. I think for me, that’s always meant that I’ve felt that whatever happens later in their life, it’s my responsibility. The origins are very personal in that I was living in the Bay Area, and my parents were living in our family house that I grew up in, in Los Angeles. They were aging. I wanted them to move to the Bay Area, so they would come to visit.

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We’d go out and drive around the senior living communities in the Bay Area. They were open-minded to it, but that process made me realize that there wasn’t anything out there that really spoke to them. I mean, my parents are immigrants to this country from India. While they’ve assimilated, whatever that means, there are things that are very important to them. As we toured the senior living communities, I could just see that there wasn’t anything out there that really spoke to them and acknowledged who they were and what was important to them; that was really the beginning.

To be honest with you, this whole thing, it didn’t start as a business. The first idea was, maybe we can buy a duplex near where I live with my wife and our family. We can remodel it, my parents will move in, and they have these really good friends. It’ll be two couples living in this duplex, and that was it. I started down that path.

Within a couple months, I got a phone call out of the blue. It was like, “Hi, I’m the sister of your mom’s friend from college. I live in Atlanta. I heard about you’re doing a senior living community in the Bay Area. This is such a great idea.” I didn’t really want to burst her bubble, so I went along with it. She said, “It’s such a great idea, we’ve been talking about this for 20 years in Atlanta. God bless you. What you’re doing, it’s incredible.” I was like, “Wow.” It was a pretty cool conversation.

The crazy thing is — I’m not even kidding about this — I got at least 10 other calls like that from people that I didn’t know. They just called me. They had heard through the grapevine that there’s this senior living community in the Bay Area that celebrates Indian culture. When I started getting those calls, I thought, “OK, maybe there’s something here.” 

It took us a couple of years to get going. It’s new, it was untested, there was skepticism. We opened our first community in 2013 in Santa Clara.

Our whole thought process was we wanted a site that was transit-oriented with a lot of the elements of that classical urbanist thinking. Then also important for us was cultural infrastructure. That’s what we call the ethnic grocery stores, and temples, and specialty restaurants, and specialty ethnic restaurants, and ethnic clothing stores. That was the methodology by which we selected Santa Clara. The 26-unit community is near downtown Santa Clara, and the train station is nearby, and there’s a lot of cool ethnic stuff.

How did you buy that first building? Did you have other partners with you?

Pass the hat.

Pass the hat around. Actually, in seriousness, it was a small club deal we did. I would say in that club, there were a number of prominent real estate leaders. We had [Watermark Senior Living Chairman] David Freshwater, which was really cool, and Scot Sellers, who used to run the large multifamily operator Archstone, and Mark Conroe, who runs a leading Bay Area development company. Then, the largest construction company in the Bay Area invested. We had very sophisticated real estate folks in there.

In terms of that building becoming intergenerational, how did that happen?

We opened the first day and people didn’t know what we were doing. We were always focused on the young people. Of course, we’re serving the elders, but we’re serving their families. We really wanted to connect with their kids, and the grandkids. I think it was really important to us that the kids were thrilled about this. We wanted kids to not only not feel guilty [about moving their parents into senior living], but to be really happy.

We were very focused on that, so when the young people would come in, we started hearing those comments like, “This place, we love it. Could we live here if we wanted to?” We said, “We have vacant units, and we need to fill them. Yes, sure. Why not?”

What we found happening in Santa Clara was young couples would come there, also immigrants, and they would take a look and hear about it, and they’d show up, and they’d say, “Can we live here? We really like the vibe. We like being around elders. We think that’s really cool. It feels like home. It reminds us of our parents, aunties and uncles.” It was really that segment, not people that were the kids of elders living there. That’s how it happened.

How many communities do you have today, and how has the model changed since that first building?

Our model, if you were to put it in a box, it would be described as “IL Lite.” I didn’t know that at that time, and we weren’t thinking about these names. It’s essentially a multifamily building with services, all a la carte. Since that community in Santa Clara, we’ve opened two more in the Bay Area. The other two are both in Fremont, and the communities have gotten larger. Our most recent community in Fremont is 122 units, and then we’re opening in Los Angeles in December. We’ve got four communities in California.

Then we’re expanding across the U.S., that’s our plan. There are 12 markets in the U.S. that are our tier-1 target markets, and those are based on the size of the immigrant populations.

They are Indian populations?

Right, so that’s how we screen them. It’s Seattle, the Bay Area, Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, Northern Virginia, Suburban Philadelphia, New Jersey, Boston, Detroit, Chicago. Those are all markets that we’re focused on. As far as growth from here on out, our plan is to go into all of those markets with the similar product. Although, we are looking to build product as opposed to acquiring. I will add that while we choose locations based on immigrant populations, we are inclusive and open to all. We welcome everyone to come experience what truly makes this country great, and have been fortunate to serve a diverse resident population.

Talk me through what is available on an a la carte basis.

Our services are meals, housekeeping, laundry, transportation, and personal care. All of those are available a la carte, on-demand. When we started, the app economy in 2013 wasn’t like what it is right now, but we still had the same model. It was just more manual than it is now. Today, it’s almost all app-driven. Our personal care is still not entirely app-driven. Our community directors basically order services on their iPhone. That’s typically the way it works.

Residents will just tell the community director they want lunch or they want dinner, and then that’ll get ordered for them. Or they need a ride, or they want housekeeping or laundry. At the end of the month, they get a bill for all the services for that month. Housekeeping we’ve brought in house.

What are the dining options?

I think the cool thing about doing it this way is you can give residents a lot more options than what’s downstairs.

We also have what we call aunties that will come and cook in a resident’s unit. That’s charged per hour, so $20 an hour. An auntie might come and cook for two hours, and make you enough meals for multiple days. We also have group cooking at the community. Groups of residents will get together and cook. We just set up the framework for that. We have a program during the week that’s called Taste My Cooking, where one resident wants to share some of their favorite dishes but multiple residents will come together and help them. Somebody will chop the vegetables, somebody will wash the dishes, and that kind of thing so it’s like a group meal.r

I think once you believe in something, then you don’t really see it as risky.

Then we also have multiple events during the week where they’re programs, but food is served. Those are the times where we’ll order food for the community. Throughout the week, there’s just a lot of stuff happening with food and we actually find that people like it because it’s not predictable. Actually, the unpredictability of it makes it more interesting, because it’s how we live our lives, right? It’s how everyone lives. You don’t really know. We really think it’s a very good solution.

How have you had to change operations due to Covid-19?

We put a pause on programs and activities and enhanced disinfecting, cleaning and restricted visitation. We did that starting March 6, and then March 16, the Bay Area implemented a region-wide shelter in place.

We’ve been fortunate. Knock on wood, we haven’t been impacted in terms of any cases in communities.

Do you think Covid-19 will lead to lasting changes in how Priya operates?

After that initial phase, we started to look at how we could start to bring our programming back, but use digital distribution for that. A crisis forces you to rethink your approach. For us, that’s going to be something we take away from this — digital delivery of programming. Not exclusively, but we’re going to use that much more. There’s a lot of benefits.

We do feel like we can deliver higher quality programming, because we’re centralizing the production of programming. If you have 10 communities and you’re doing yoga at every community, you’re relying on whoever the local yoga instructor is, versus having your best yoga instructor teaching classes at all your communities.

We’ve likened it to what Peloton has done. High-quality central production versus, in Peloton’s case, physical spin studios.

Can you describe how Priya has centralized the production of programming?

When we were first brainstorming about this, we really did think a lot about Peloton. We said, okay, we’re going to get studio space in Oakland. We’re going to bring our instructors there. It’s going to be high production value. Obviously, we realized, you can’t do that in the middle of a pandemic.

What we did instead is, we created these packages that we mail to instructors at their home. The packages have high-definition video camera equipment, sound equipment, there’s a backdrop, there’s lighting, a little instruction package on how to do their setup at home.

The other thing we like about the digital programming route is it’s asynchronous. You don’t have to take your yoga class on Tuesday at 10am. You can take it Friday at 5pm or whenever you want to. I think this experience has opened the door for people mentally, too, to be open to this.

Going forward, once this is all done, does it mean everyone’s taking their class in their unit? It could be some of that, it could be small groups coming together in a common area with a big screen, and in-person programming will still be there. The great thing is, you’re creating a library of content, right? When you do a live yoga class in a community, it’s gone. It’s like Snapchat — there for 30 seconds. When it’s recorded, you have so much utility from that one class that now lives on in perpetuity.

Do you think Covid-19 will suppress consumer demand for independent living?

I’ve been kind of all over the place on this one. It certainly felt like there was going to be a seismic shift. Then, for me personally, the pendulum kind of swung in the other direction. I think people realizing the benefits of socialization is a really powerful thing. I imagine we all know people in our personal lives who are elders — I see this in my family, aunties and uncles that are stuck in their single-family homes, and it’s been a really difficult experience.

I do think it’s going to help the industry in terms of people having lived through this and many of them deciding, I don’t want to do this again.

I think providing alternatives to folks that may be concerned about high-density congregate environments is a good idea. The small home model — that’s something we’ve thought about … you’ve got most seniors in the country living in single-family homes and we’re only converting 10% of them. So, it really begs the question, doesn’t it make sense to provide these alternatives?

I think a lot of arguments that have always been there for high density — that it’s the most efficient way to deliver services — that’s changed now, with technology.

Black Lives Matter is also creating a lot of momentum for change. What are your thoughts, particularly as a provider serving a non-white demographic group?

I’m glad you mentioned Black Lives Matter. From my point of view, it really highlights the need for senior housing solutions that serve minorities, immigrant groups.

The country’s aging, but it’s also becoming more diverse.

We have to acknowledge the discrimination within the senior living industry itself in terms of which segments of the market we choose to serve — which submarkets, geographic markets, we choose to enter or not enter. And, obviously, it’s an industry that’s not very diverse, racially. We need to pay attention to this, and [ask] what are we doing about it, what are we actively doing?

As you said, the industry’s leadership isn’t particularly diverse. Can you talk about that issue and the need for change?

Absolutely. I think there’s a lack of awareness and understanding of what people out there need.

We were responding to a demographic that’s been called the “Browning of the graying of America.” Obviously, the country’s aging, but it’s also becoming more diverse. Overlay those two phenomena. 

The African-American elderly population is growing at a much faster rate than the white elderly population. The Hispanic population is growing at a much higher rate, the Asian population is growing at a much higher rate. What’s interesting is real estate should be driven by data, and if you look at the data, that’s what it tells you. I think there is a fear of addressing that because people don’t understand how to serve that need or they’re not educated about the fact that there are people that can pay for it.

It’s not that these are markets where people can’t afford it — they can. I do think it’s a missed opportunity by the industry. It’s interesting that you have all these companies looking to expand overseas when we have emerging markets here in the U.S., untapped. They’re sitting on it and they’re just blind to it. I think it’s important just from a business standpoint if not from a moral standpoint.

Where do you fall on the risk tolerance spectrum? Were there sleepless nights in getting started?

I didn’t get paid for years. I had the classic situation of maxed-out credit cards, depleted savings account, nothing left in the bank. We were opening our first community in Santa Clara, and really it was just me basically. We had people doing the renovation and construction, but I was going to pick up the furniture and build the furniture, and I was answering the phones and doing the leasing, and I was opening community director and I was making beds. I did all that.

I don’t know if I saw it as risky. I think risk is part of it. But I think before you even get to risk, you have to believe in something. I think once you believe in something, then you don’t really see it as risky.

There’s all those sayings about the risk of inaction. I think that can be a bigger risk, if you don’t do anything and you keep doing what you’re doing the same way without changing it, that’s risky.

When we were opening our first community, I had my first kid [on the way], we were running out of money, we had the credit card and I was basically living in Santa Clara, because I’d be there until late at night instead of driving home.

Was there a moment when you felt relief? This is going to work?

Yes, there was. I can’t say it was the first day we opened, but it caught on pretty quick. Within the first year, we were full and we had a waiting list. Yes, I did feel that.

I think it’s always healthy to talk about change; how people are thinking differently, doing things differently. Hopefully, that brings some more change.

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