WASHINGTON (

TheStreet

) -- Housing starts rose at a far brisker-than-expected pace in January, growing past totals from a year ago.

According to a joint statement from the Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development released Wednesday, housing starts, or new home construction, rose to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 591,000 units last month. The January figure beat consensus forecasts calling for a more modest rise to 580,000, according to estimates provided by Briefing.com.

"It's a clear sign of the light at the end of the tunnel, but we're still in the tunnel," said Dan Egan, CEO of the Massachusetts Credit Union League. "The rise of 2.8% is reason for optimism," though he also added "the lingering concern is that joblessness may be discouraging some buyers, along with the end of the

home buyer tax incentive and coming interest rate adjustment."

The report also showed December totals were revised higher to 575,000 from the originally reported 557,000. Last month's rate was also 21% higher than the total from January 2009.

But the number of building permits, which may portend construction to come, slid to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 621,000 from December's revised 653,000 rate.

Homebuilders were broadly lower in the afternoon. The Philadelphia Housing Sector Index slipped 0.5%, while shares for

TST Recommends

Lennar

(LEN) - Get Report

,

Pulte Homes

(PHM) - Get Report

and

KB Home

(KBH) - Get Report

lost ground.

-- Written by Sung Moss in New York