By John S. McClenahen For a few months, economists and analysts have verbally been trying to pull down housing. But they're not having much luck. Indeed, in dramatic contrast to expectations for a 1.95 million annual rate for housing starts in December 2003, the U.S. Commerce Department and Department of Housing and Urban Development reported Jan. 21 that privately owned housing starts for the final month of last year were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 2.088 million, 1.7% higher than November 2003's revised rate of 2.054 million. The increase was paced by a 15.7% rise in starts for multi-family dwellings to an annual rate of 397,000. Starts for single-family housing actually decreased 0.6% from November to December to an annual rate of 1.664 million. "December starts can easily be distorted by weather," notes UBS Investment Research, New York. "But with mortgage rates blipping down again, and, we believe, job markets improving, fundamentals look decent for starts early this quarter."