Housing starts crept up 1.5% in August, due primarily to an increase in multi-family construction in the Northeast, the Commerce Department reported Thursday. Permits also were driven up by apartment construction.

August starts came in at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 598,000, a gain of 1.5% from a revised July estimate of 589,000 but 29.6% (±6.0%) below the August 2008 rate of 849,000. Single-family starts fell 3% to a rate of 479,000, 21.7% below last year's rate. Meantime, starts in buildings with 5 or more units rose 35.3% to a rate of 115,000.

Not seasonally adjusted, single-family starts were reported at 43,800, down from 54,400 for August, 2008.

Regionally, starts were up 23.8% in the Northeast, but single-family was down 14.5%. Compared to last August, total starts were off 41.8% and single-family down 25.4%. Total starts in the Midwest were up 0.9%, 10.9% off last year's pace, but single-family starts were up 7.1%, still 20.4% below last August. Total starts in the South were down 2.4%, 29.7% off last August, with single-family down 4.9% sequentially and 23% year-over-year.Total starts in the West were flat with July but off 33.2% compared to last August, with single-family down 0.9% from July and 18.4% from last August.

Permits rose 2.7% from July to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 579,000, 2.7% above the revised July rate of 564,000 but remain 32.4% below the August 2008 estimate of 857,000. Single-family permits fell 0.2% from July to a rate of 462,000, 15.7% below last August. Permits in buildings with five units or more were up 18.1% to at a rate of 98,000.

Again, it was the Northeast driving most of the gain, with total permits up 14.3%, 24.7% off last year's pace, but single-family permits coming in flat month-to-month and off 26.7% year-over-year. In the Midwest, total permits were down 5.7%, a 30.3% decline from last August, but single-family was up 3.9% and off 10.1% from the same month last year. Total permits in the South were up 7.2%, 33.1% off last year's pace, but single family was down 0.8%, 13.8% below last August. The West was down all around, with total permits down 5.6%, 36% off last August, and signel family down 2.1%, an 18.8% decline from the same month in 2008.

Completions were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 760,000, 5.5% below the revised July estimate of 804,000 and is 25.3% below the August 2008 rate of 1,018,000. Single-family completions were at a rate of 489,000, down 1.6% from July and down 31.6% from last August. and this is 1.6 percent (±12.7%)* below the revised July figure of 497,000. The August rate for units in buildings with five units or more was 256,000, down 12.3% month-to-month and down 10.2% year-over-year.