Housing starts were 6 percent better in August than they were a year ago, although they took a 16.2 percent drop from aberrant July figures, the Commerce Department reported yesterday.

The annual rate of housing starts was just barely above 1 million units, only the third time in the past year it has been over the million mark.

July's housing-starts rate leapt 31.6 percent to 1.195 million units from the June level of 908,000 units, because of a final burst of multifamily housing construction under an expiring federal apartment-building program, and August's drop was primarily in the multifamily area.

The National Association of Home Builders still is predicting that 1982 will prove to be the worst year for new housing construction since World War II, narrowly edging out the previous record low of 1.1 million units set last year. For the first eight months of this year, a total of 650,900 housing units were started, a drop of 18 percent from 1981.

Building permits were issued at an annual rate of 886,000 in August, a 17 percent drop from July's 1.062 million units but slightly above the 878,000 rate in August 1981. The drop from July took place mainly in the multifamily category. All the figures are adjusted for seasonal variations.