Housing starts came in stronger than expected in February, but still fell from recent highs, the U.S. Department of Commerce said Thursday. Housing starts in February were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 2.12 million, down 7.9% from the revised January estimate of 2.3 million and down 4.8% from a year ago. Economists expected 2.03 million starts. "This is a strong number by historical standards. Anyone looking for fodder that housing is not dead yet can certainly use a number like this," says Phillip Neuhart, a Wachovia economic analyst. But at the same time, the year-over-year drop shows "housing is continuing to decelerate, and housing starts will eventually follow the stronger deceleration we have seen in new and existing home sales," Neuhart says. Compared with a year ago, starts dropped 24.7% in the Midwest, fell 12.1% in the Northeast, and were basically flat in the West. In the South, starts rose 2.3%. Total residential permits exhibited strength, coming in at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 2.15 million in February, up 2.5% from a year earlier. Housing completions in February were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 2.02 million, 5.2% above last year.