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Multifamily units buoy April housing-start report

Spurred by multifamily construction, housing starts surged 8.2 percent nationally in April from March, the Commerce Department reported today.

Spurred by multifamily construction, housing starts surged 8.2 percent nationally in April from March, the Commerce Department reported today.

Single-family home starts declined 1.7 percent.

Total building permits nationally also rose 8.2 percent from March to April, although they are at 55 percent of their early 2006 peak.

Permits for single-family homes fell 0.7 percent, Commerce reported, which is 62 percent below 2006.

Year-over-year numbers showed a 30.6 percent drop in housing starts from April 2007 and a 34.3 percent decline in building permits.

Housing completions were 16 percent below those in March, and 34.9 percent under April 2007.

Economists had mixed reactions to the numbers.

"Let's not kid ourselves, the housing market has crashed and burned and this report doesn't say the situation is good," said Joel F. Naroff, chief economist at Commerce Bancorp in Cherry Hill.

"Construction activity has been so low that it has no place to go but up and that might just be happening," he said.

Brian Bethune, chief financial economist for Global Insight in Lexington, Mass, said that "it is definitely too early to uncork the champagne on the long and winding road to more healthy housing market conditions."

"The only potential good news to take away from this report is that the rate of decline of housing activity is likely to drop in the months ahead," Bethune said.

"There's more noise than information in this report," said Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody's in West Chester.

There were strong gains in the Midwest and West, some improvement in the South, but major weakness in the Northeast, with a drop of 1.8 percent from March to April, and a 45.4 decline from April 2007, the report stated.

The level of starts in the Northeast has not been this low since the housing market collapse in 1991, Naroff said.

Multifamily growth in the eight-county Philadelphia region remains small.

Spencer Yablon, corporate affairs manager at the Philadelphia office of Marcus & Millichap, said 1,300 rental units were expected to be completed this year regionwide, a 0.7 percent increase in the area's apartment stock.

"Supply growth will be minimal again in 2008 and over the longer term, as steering new projects through to completion remains challenging in most areas," he said.

On the new-home side, builders locally continue to reduce inventory through promotions and other incentives.

The supply remains at 28,000 units, with 35,000 proposed, said Wayne Norris, regional sales director for Philadelphia-based Hanley Wood Market Intelligence.

By comparison, Phoenix has 100,000 units for sale and 385,000 proposed, while Las Vegas has 90,000 units for sale and 95,000 proposed.

"The numbers show that the situation in our area is nowhere near what it is in those regions," Norris said. "Yes, sales are down considerably, but homes are not sitting around empty as we see elsewhere on TV."