Housing starts plummeted 13.3 percent last year, including a 12.4 percent drop in December, the government reported this week. It was the lowest annual level since the 1981-82 recession.

The Commerce Department said construction began on 1.19 million units in 1990, down from 1.38 million a year earlier. It was the smallest number of starts since 1.06 million units were started in 1982.

Starts in December totaled a seasonally adjusted annual rate of just 987,000, down from 1.13 million in November. The number of housing starts was the lowest since June 1982, when 902,000 units were started.

The 9.8 percent increase in starts in November was the first advance since last January.

But the November gain was primarily because of a 92 percent increase in multifamily starts, which many analysts said could not be sustained.

Apartment construction fell 35.4 percent in December, to an annual rate of 232,000 units.

Construction of single-family houses slipped 1.7 percent, to an annual rate of 755,000 units. That, too, was the lowest since October 1982 when construction began on 737,000 houses.

The contraction in the housing industry helped reduce construction payrolls by 28,000 jobs in December. Since last spring that industry has lost nearly 300,000 jobs, according to Labor Department statistics.

The Commerce report suggested no improvement in the months to come. Applications for building permits, often a barometer of future activity, fell 6.6 percent to 846,000, the lowest since 808,000 forms were filed in February 1982. For the year, applications were down 17.5 percent, to 1.1 million, the lowest since the recession year of 1982 when 1 million forms were filed.

Starts fell in all regions of the country, including a 21.1 percent decline, to 112,000 units, in the Northeast.

Virginia Beach developer R.G. Moore, who constructed thousands of homes and symbolized the resort city's once-unremitting growth, reportedly is having difficulty paying his bills.

The Virginian-Pilot and Ledger-Star of Norfolk this week reported that last month, Moore paid only half of the $700,000 he owed in property taxes, turned over the title to 72 lots in a city subdivision to satisfy a debt and stretched out payments on other loans.

The newspaper also reported that some of his roofers, lumber suppliers and other employees say he has missed paydays, and some have gone to court for protection.

The newspaper also said Moore, to make ends meet, is selling off projects and land and curtailing his operations in hopes of trimming a heavy debt load.

But he told the newspaper that he's a long way from broke, or from halting construction.

"I'll be the first one to tell you we're not in the best of times," he said. "But if you want to find out if a guy's in financial trouble, ride around and see if his jobs are underway. My jobs aren't sitting still."

He repeatedly asserted his financial health, despite speaking freely about having trouble paying debts.

"I told every bank I do business with I will make it through these tough times," he said. "I won't say I'll make every payment on time, but you will get paid, and that's a sure thing."

Moore warned people who might take him to court, be they vendors or bankers.

"You might file one lien, but if you ever file a second lien, you will never put another ... piece of lumber, trim work or nothing on one of my jobs," he said.

IN THE BUSINESS ... Joseph Alfandre and Co. Inc. began development of the Kentlands, a 240-unit luxury rental community in Gaithersburg. The garden-style apartment buildings are a joint venture of Bozzuto & Associates and Copley Real Estate Advisors ... The General Services Administration awarded Bethesda-based George Hyman Construction Co. a contract to build a new $139 million National Archives building in College Park ... Long & Foster Real Estate Inc. opened two new local offices. It merged with ERA Homestead Properties Inc. in Burke and added a second Vienna office ... Prudential Preferred Properties in Bethesda acquired Meredith/Better Homes & Gardens, a five-office Baltimore firm with more than 270 sales associates ... The National Association of Realtors housing affordability index rose to 115.6 in November 1990, up from 113.3 in October. The index, which measures the ability of a typical family to purchase a median-priced resale home, is at its highest point in 13 years. At its current level, the index indicates that a family earning the national median income of $35,467 has 115.6 percent of the income necessary to qualify for a typical mortgage covering 80 percent of the average home price of $91,300 ... Penn Cos. of Washington formed Penn Asset Management Group Inc. as a consultant to lenders and owners of troubled real estate companies ... Lawrence G. Lynn, former head of commercial management at Long & Foster, opened a commercial real estate brokerage and management firm called Lawrence Lynn & Associates in Washington ... David Sittler, formerly of NVHomes, formed a consulting firm to help on workouts and development and construction projects called the J. David Sittler Co. ... The Metropolitan Washington Chapter of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry announced the following "Builder of the Year" awards: Lightworks Construction Inc. of Bethesda for entire house remodeling; Classic Color and Design Inc. of McLean for exterior remodeling; Ruppert Brothers Construction Co. of Adelphi for interior remodeling; McMahon Plumbing Co. of Washington for bathroom remodeling; and Glickman Design of Rockville for creative solutions under $10,000 ... The Northern Virginia Building Industry Association named Frederick A. Kober of the Christopher Cos. Builder of the Year and Charles M. Browning, publisher of the New Homes Guide, associate of the year.

CALENDAR ... The District of Columbia Building Industry Association is planning a dinner meeting Thursday at 6 p.m. at the Washington Vista Hotel. John A. Wilson, the new District Council chairman, will speak. For reservations, call 202-966-8665 ... Prentice Hall Law & Business is planning a conference on Real Estate Workouts and Turnarounds Jan. 31 through Feb. 1 in New York at the Hotel Maclowe. For more information call 1-800-223-0231.

PERSONNEL FILE ... Steve Surprenant was named executive vice president of Warner Construction Consultants of Rockville ... The Metropolitan Washington Chapter of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry elected Guy H. Semmes of Potomac-based Hopkins & Porter Construction Inc. to his second one-year term as president. -- Compiled from staff reports and news services