Housing industry economists are predicting that home starts in 1982 will remain at depression levels.

At a recent housing forecast conference sponsored by the National Association of Home Builders, a panel of economists estimated that starts next year would total between 1 million and 1.3 million units, only about half the level a few years ago during a boom period and not much better than this year's dismal performance.

The homebuilders' group predicts that the total for 1981 will be just slightly more than 1 million units, the lowest level since 1946.

The association also forecasts that things are likely to get worse before they get better. Starts in September fell to an annual rate of 918,000, according to Commerce Department figures, and the group believes further declines are in store.

"I have given up on 1982," said Michael Sumichrast, chief economist at the homebuilders association, when asked about the September figures.

The group's own "most optimistic" forecast is for housing starts to total 1.27 million units, rising from a rate of 1 million in the first quarter to 1.4 million in the fourth quarter.

The economists at the homebuilders' conference said a slow recovery should start in the second or third quarters of next year.

The industry experts at the conference included Leonard Santow, senior vice president of J. Henry Shroder Bank & Trust Co.; Allen Sinai, senior economist at Data Resources Inc.; Arthur M. Weimer, consulting economist at the U.S. League of Savings Associations; and Peter Treadway, former chief economist at the Federal National Mortgage Association and now chief economist at Cralin Securities Co.

A forecast by the U.S. League of Savings Associations, put out separately, parallels the projections at the homebuilders' conference. Starts will range between 1.2 million and 1.3 million units, starting at lower rates and gradually rising in the last half of the year, the league predicted.

"There will be no miraculous recovery in the housing markets," said league President Rollin D. Barnard, in a statement prepared for the group's annual convention in New York this weekend. For the near future, "continuing high mortgage rates will keep housing demand low for the next several months," he said.

Barnard, also president of Midland Federal Savings of Denver, predicted that activity would start to pick up next summer and would then start a slow recovery.