Overall housing starts rose 2.8% in February to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.77 million units, according to the U.S. Commerce Department. The gain was due entirely to the single-family sector, where starts rose 7.4% to a rate of 1.46 million units--their fastest pace since December, 1978.

Multi-family starts, typically more volatile, retreated 14.3% to an annual rate of 312,000 units, partially offsetting a substantial gain registered in January. Starts rose in three out of four regions in February. The West’s gain of 14% was the largest, while the Midwest and South posted more moderate gains of 0.8% and 0.9%, respectively. The Northeast was the exception to the rule, with a 9.3% decline that followed a sizeable increase in January.

“These exceptionally strong numbers, combined with upwardly revised figures for January and December, are ample evidence that housing, specifically residential fixed investment, is helping pull the economy out of recession,” said Gary Garczynski, president of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) and a builder/developer from Woodbridge, Va.

Building permits, which can be an indicator of future building activity, also rose in February. The volume of permits increased nearly 2% in February to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.75 million units. Single-family permits rose 2.7% to a rate of 1.37 million units, while multi-family permits declined 1.3% to a rate of 381,000 units. Both were up from their fourth-quarter 2001 averages. Regionally, permits rose in all but the Midwest in February.