- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression took its toll on the private housing market in January as the Commerce Department announced that builders started the fewest number of homes on a seasonably adjusted basis since the agency began keeping those records in 1959.

Builders broke ground on an annual rate of 466,000 houses and apartments last month, a 16.8 percent drop below the upwardly revised December estimate of 560,000 and a whopping 56.2 percent below the rate of 1,064,000 units in January 2008, the Commerce Department said.

The number was far below the 529,000 starts that had been predicted in a Bloomberg News survey.

The figures marked the lowest number of monthly housing starts since Commerce began keeping records on those statistics since 1959, the final year of the President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s second term.

At the same time, the number of building permits — an indicator of future housing starts and a barometer of the economy generally — fell 4.8 percent to 521,000. Bloomberg had predicted they would fall to 525,000.

The prolonged slump in housing hardly came as a surprise because of the tens of thousands of foreclosed homes on the market and the lack of buyers of new and existing homes during the 14-month recession, the worst U.S. economic downturn in more than 70 years. And banks have tightened credit, turning away potential homebuyers.

Credit Suisse predicted last month that 2 million homeowners faced foreclosure proceedings last year and that up to 10 million mortgages could face foreclosures in the coming years, according to the Associated Press. The firm’s December report said 8.1 million homes may be foreclosed in the next four years.

The Commerce Department said the Northeast marked the worst area of the country for housing starts, with a drop of 42.9 percent to a record low of 36,000 units at a seasonably adjusted annual rate. The Midwest was second with a 29.3 percent decline.

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