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updated 1/19/2011 3:29:42 PM ET 2011-01-19T20:29:42

Builders began work last year on the second fewest number of homes in more than half a century, as the weak economy kept people from buying houses.

Builders broke ground on a total of 587,600 homes in 2010, just barely better than the 554,000 started in 2009. Those are the two worst years on records dating back to 1959.

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And the pace is getting worse. The Commerce Department reported Wednesday that builders started work at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 529,000 new homes and apartments last month. That's a drop of 4.3 percent from November and the slowest pace since October 2009.

In a healthy economy, builders start about one million units a year. They built twice as many in 2005, at the height of the housing boom. Since then the market has been in decline.

One positive sign is that builders appear to be planning more projects in 2011. Building permits, considered a good barometer for future activity, rose 16.7 percent in December to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 635,000, the best pace since March.

But builders likely pulled more permits in California, New York and Pennsylvania ahead of code changes in 2011 — a factor that likely influenced the spike.

"Some builders went ahead in December with projects to beat the change," said Jennifer Lee, an analyst at BMO Capital Markets. Lee points out that the biggest gains were in the Northeast, which was up 80.6 percent, and the West, up 43.9 percent.

People are buying fewer single-family homes, which represent nearly 80 percent of the market. Demand fell 9 percent to an annual rate of 417,000 units. Apartment building increased 17.9 percent to an annual rate of 112,000 units.

Housing construction fell in all parts of the country in December except the West where activity surged 45.8 percent. Construction dropped 38.4 percent in the Midwest and was down 24.7 percent in the Northeast and 2.2 percent in the South. Severe winter weather likely affected activity in the Northeast and Midwest.

The collapse of the housing market helped push the country into a deep recession and more than a year after the recession, housing is still struggling.

Unemployment remains high. Record numbers of foreclosures have forced home prices down and tight credit has made mortgages tough to come by.

The stagnation in housing is weighing on the overall economic recovery. Each new home built creates, on average, the equivalent of three jobs for a year and generates about $90,000 in taxes, according to the National Association of Home Builders.

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