The unprecedented depth of the housing downturn was evident Wednesday morning in the release of October data on residential housing starts and permits by the Commerce Department: Both fell to the lowest levels on record.

Housing starts in October dropped 4.5% from an upwardly revised September annual pace to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 791,000, 38.0% below last October. It was the lowest level since the government began tracking residential construction activity in 1959.

Single-family housing starts in October were at a rate of 531,000, down 3.3% from September and 40% from last October to the lowest annual pace since October, 1981.

Likewise, permits were down 12% from September to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 708,000, 40.1% below last October and a new record low, slipping below the previous low in March, 1975 by 1,000 units. Single family permits were down 14.5% from October to a rate of 460,000, down 43.3% from October 2007 and the lowest annual rate since February, 1982.

Housing completions were down 10.2% from September to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,043,000, 25.6% below October, 2007. Single-family completions fell 7.7% to a rate of 760,000.