Housing starts edged up in May after declining slightly the previous month, the government reported yesterday, but analysts said the gain probably was an aberration and did not alter expectations that construction will continue to slide.
Commerce Department figures showed the jumber of new dwellings units begun in May at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.827 million, up 5 percent from the revised April pace of 1.735 million, but still below March levels.
Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve Board reported that the nation's factories operated at 85.6 percent of their capacity in May, up from an 84.7 percent pace in April but still below the March rate of 86.2 percent.
However, the increase was largely a rebound from April's decline, when production was crimped by the impact of the nationwide teamsters' strike. Key economic statistics have been distorted in the wake of the walkout.
The combination of figures did not alter earlier assessments that the economy is beginning to slow gradually. Although some economists are predicting a recession, indications so far are the slowing still in mild.
The pattern of housing starts in May was a surprise to some analysts. The rate for single-family housing units edged down moderately, but starts of multi-family units rose - to 506,000 units, compared to 349,000 to in April.
Analysts were reluctant to attach any significance to the rebound in multi-family units, suggesting a variety of reasons for the bounceback from pent-up construction plans delayed by bad weather to a revival of condominiums in Florida.
May A. Fruscello, economist for the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation, said it was "too early to assess" whether the rebound "is an aberration or an idication of underlying strength."
And William Cox, the Commerce Deaprtment's deputy chief economist, said the figures "don't change" the government's own forecast that housing starts would continue to decline later this year.
Housing starts began edging down in December as one of the first sectors of the economy to begin slowing after the autumn and winter surge. They plunged sharply in January and February before rebounding in March.
Yesterday's figures showed building permits, a key indicator of future housing activity, also rose 5 percent in May to a new annual rate of 1.591 million units, from a revised 1.517 million for April.
Curiously, the parttern was the same as that for actual housing starts during the month - that is, permits taken out for single-family homes declined while those for multi-family units rose. CAPTION: Chart, Housing Starts