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A man works on a balcony railing at an under-construction condo tower in Vancouver on Oct. 26, 2018.

DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Canada’s homebuilding activity remained historically strong last month even though the annual pace of starts plunged 20 per cent from August, economists said Thursday.

Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. said the seasonally adjusted annual rate of housing starts was 208,980 units in September, down from 261,547 units in August but in line with average readings in 2019.

Economists had expected an annual rate of 240,000 starts in September, according to financial markets data firm Refinitiv.

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The decrease was driven by weakness in Ontario and British Columbia and lower starts in condos.

However, the six-month moving average of the monthly seasonally adjusted annual rates of housing starts rose slightly to 214,647 in September, up from 212,609 in August.

“The national trend in housing starts was largely unchanged in September,” said Bob Dugan, CMHC’s chief economist.

COVID-19 has resulted in volatility in multi-family starts, especially in Toronto.

“We expect national starts to trend lower by the end of 2020 as a result of the negative impact of COVID-19 on economic and housing indicators,” he said in a news release.

Broader demand trends remain resilient in the near-term with the level of starts remaining strong by historical standards, said RBC economist Claire Fan.

“Average starts from January to September were one per cent above the same period in 2019 — despite COVID-19 containment measures that shut down wide swaths of the economy in the spring,” she wrote in a report.

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“And in Quebec and Ontario, average starts continued to outpace the national comparable while the others, most notably BC, lagged.”

Fan noted that the issuance of permits has remained strong, “suggesting still-solid momentum for housing starts in the near-term.”

Housing starts averaged 237,300 units in the third quarter, up 22.2 per cent from 194,100 units in the second quarter.

“Moving forward, past pre-construction sales gains and low rates should ensure that starts remain elevated through next year,” TD economist Rishi Sondhi wrote.

“Afterwards, some slowing may take place as softer population growth brought upon by the pandemic weighs on housing demand, and ultimately, homebuilding.”

The annual pace of urban starts fell 21.1 per cent in September to 195,909 with starts down in eight of 10 provinces:

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Housing starts in Ontario fell by nearly 37,000 units to 78,700 while activity in B.C. fell by 10,900 units to 30,700 units.

Homebuilding activity in Quebec dropped by 7,500 to 48,000 units.

Alberta drove higher starts in the Prairie region where urban starts climbed by 5,700 to 24,800 units, offsetting losses in Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

Starts in Atlantic Canada slipped with declines in every province but Nova Scotia.

The pace of urban starts of apartments, condos and other types of multiple-unit housing projects decreased 27 per cent to 146,005 units, while single-detached urban starts increased 3.4 per cent to 49,904.

Rural starts were estimated at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 13,071 units.

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