Mission Valley was one of San Diego’s fastest growing communities during the last decade, as developers built more than 2,000 new homes there.

Though building slowed with the housing crash, construction has started again. A massive development, Civita, will build close to 5,000 new homes in Mission Valley in the next decade. The first 500 apartments and condominiums are scheduled to be done by early next year.

But as construction moves forward, U.S. Census data released last month appears to offer a reason to pause: Mission Valley had one of the highest vacancy rates in San Diego last year. About 12 percent of homes in the neighborhood’s core, many built in the last decade, were vacant. The citywide average, the Census found, was 6.4 percent.

Real estate analysts, consultants and developers have summarily dismissed that number, saying their own data show a vacancy rate more in line with the city average, and have shrugged off the possibility that the new data could fuel further criticism of the Civita project — formerly called Quarry Falls — as premature.

“That’s not accurate,” said Marco Sessa, senior vice president of Sudberry Properties, which is developing Civita. “Not even close. We haven’t seen anything above five percent.”

They believe the Census data is skewed, and that Census-takers may have shortchanged Mission Valley because its gated multi-family buildings are hard to access, because of the many college students and service people who only live there for part of the year, and because many Mission Valley condominiums are owned as second homes.

Census vacancy rates are based on whether anyone is actually living in a unit at the time of the survey, not whether it’s rented or owned.

“I have to tell you I’m a little surprised. I wouldn’t have expected them to be higher there,” said Gary London, president of The London Group Realty Advisors.

Mission Valley may have seen a recession-driven outflux, he said, as homeowners and tenants in their 20s and 30s — a large segment of Mission Valley’s population — walked away from homes or left for lower-rent areas of the city or to live with family.

“I don’t think the vacancy rates, even if they’re a tad bit higher, probably say anything more than it’s a transitional moment.”

Robert Martinez, director of research for MarketPointe Realty Advisors, a local firm, said a survey of 16 major Mission Valley rental developments his firm conducted last month found vacancy at 5.5 percent, a rate considered normal in high-density communities like Mission Valley. That survey was based on data that looks at how many units are leased, not necessarily how many have people living in them.

“The problem with the Census is the methodology. They’re counting on people to fill those out accurately and return them,” Martinez said. “I’m sure that a very good percentage do, but there’s always the people in the background that might be screwing it up. And in most high-density projects, good luck getting into a building without someone letting you in.”

Melissa Kresin, a Census Bureau statistician who tracks vacancy rates, said in communities like Mission Valley, with its many high-density, gated communities, Census-takers can have a hard time reaching people. They’ll try several times to get residents to fill out a survey before declaring a home vacant, and may resort to asking building managers whether anyone lives in a unit. “But it depends on their training,” she said. Managers consider a unit occupied if it’s rented, Census-takers only if someone is actually living there, which could account for the discrepancy, she said.

Mission Valley is one of city’s few neighborhoods dominated by multi-family gated buildings. University City in another, but its vacancy rates were less than 10 percent. Downtown, vacancy rates were the highest in the city, with roughly one-third of homes vacant in some parts, as developers have struggled to fill the large number of condos built before the housing market’s bust.

But unlike downtown, analysts said there is little evidence of overdevelopment in Mission Valley, at least from a demand standpoint.

Peter Dennehy, vice president of John Burns Real Estate Consulting, said no Mission Valley developments are suffering from higher-than-average vacancy rates.

The decision by Sudberry Properties to build more than 300 new apartments by next year, Dennehy said, was driven by unfilled demand in the company’s other apartment complex nearby.

“You can’t make the case that there’s overdevelopment,” London said. “That would be grossly wrong, because it’s a central area for prospective housing demand.”

“This is the top region that city planners and consumers want to see developed because of its location and proximity to the trolley, and to employment centers.”

But residents of surrounding communities like Serra Mesa have been heavily critical of further development in Mission Valley, which has continued for decades with little consideration for basic neighborhood amenities like parks, fire stations and libraries. Traffic snarls are common along the community’s main thoroughfares.

Brian Schoenfisch, the city’s planner for Mission Valley, said in an email that the Census vacancy rates capture a snapshot of the community at a moment in time, but don’t reflect the long-term demand for housing in Mission Valley.

Sessa, Sudberry’s vice president, said construction of Civita’s nearly 5,000 homes will be phased in over time, allowing the company to start building, or stop, depending on demand.

“These first developments — the condos being built — if they don’t sell, we’re not going to start on the next ones,” he said.

Please contact Adrian Florido directly at adrian.florido@voiceofsandiego.org or at 619.325.0528 and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adrianflorido.

Adrian Florido is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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