Single-family housing starts fell slightly in March to an annualized rate of 531,000 units, but compared to the same month last year rose an impressive 47%.

Then again, March of 2009 was one of the worst on record for homebuilders, thanks to the recession, soaring unemployment, and a swooning stock market.

The single-family figures released by the U.S. Census Bureau Friday morning represent starts on one-unit abodes only. In the volatile multifamily category starts surged almost 19% from February to March but were down 32% year over year. (For March, the annualized figure for multifamily was 88,000 units.)

Some housing analysts believe multifamily construction could benefit from the "new normal" in the U.S. economy as consumers opt to rent instead of buying a home.

Weiss Research analyst Mike Larson said the new numbers fit his firm's "anemic recovery" scenario. He noted that permit activity was strong in both the single- and multifamily sides of the business.

"With new home inventories running at their lowest level since 1971, it's not surprising that builders are starting to swing their hammers again," he said, but predicted that a "vigorous rebound" will not appear "due to the overhang of distressed, 'used' homes."

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