The housing construction industry has taken such a beating over the past few years that it could not meet a dramatic increase in demand for new homes, if one were to materialize, the president of the National Association of Home Builders said this week.

Fred Napolitano said his group does not expect that kind of unmanageable surge, but remains "cautiously optimistic" that housing starts will rise to about 1.3 million in 1983 from this year's level of slightly over 1 million.

"If we go on the basis of current forecasts , at 1.3 million to 1.4 or 1.5 million, somewhere in that area, we can probably do that without very much inflation in housing--5 to 6 percent," he said.

But, "if we were to start building [at a rate of] 1.8 million, starting at the beginning of next year, we couldn't do it," Napolitano said.

"The industry's not geared for it," he added. "The lumber mills are closed down, the production is way down, we've lost our labor and so forth. So we just couldn't do" more than about 1.5 million.

Napolitano said he believes the latent demand for housing is at least 1.8 million units a year -- and possibly more -- but many of these potential buyers are being kept out of the market by high interest rates. For builders, the best thing that could happen would be a gradual, steady decline in these rates that would bring buyers back into the market as builders' capacity increases.

He said he told Federal Reserve Chairman Paul A. Volcker at a meeting about three weeks ago that "the worst thing you could do is drop those rates so fast that we all take off and then the rates have to move up again. . . ."

He said Volcker "indicated" that he believes interest rates will remain relatively stable through 1983 because federal budget "deficits for 1983 have largely been taken into account" by lenders, but if deficits are not brought under control in subsequent years, interest rates will again begin to climb.

Therefore, Napolitano said, "I've been telling my builders around the country: 'Make your plans now. We think we're pretty safe for '83 but don't go too far out on a limb.' "

He said that builders, in turn, "are cautiously optimistic right now." But Napolitano noted that "while our builders are smiling, there are parts of the country that obviously aren't going to do well and are not responding yet, and that's the industrial areas of the country, which have their own economic problems. . . ."

The Sun Belt, by contrast, is generally doing very well, though "Southern California is still hurting right now," he said. "The market there is not turning around. Prices are high, and builders are still trying to get rid of their inventory houses. And it's going to take them a little while to turn around."

On other topics, Napolitano said that:

* If interest rates remain in their current range or decline further, "I don't believe we need any sort of stimulus program" from Congress. "If rates begin to move up again then . . . I would say we probably would be looking for some other program to get this industry moving again."

* As long as interest rates remain relatively high, builders will produce more town houses and condominiums.

* "Rental housing is beginning to move" as various areas of the country begin to experience shortages.