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As residential construction slowed throughout the rest of Canada in January, Ontario contractors actually broke ground for more housing units than they did a month earlier, according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC).

Housing starts in the urban centres of the country’s most populous province last month reached a seasonally adjusted annualized rate (SAAR) of 58,602, up 12.7 per cent from December. This rate allows observers to see what year-end totals would look like if current activity levels persisted for 12 months.

The climb in home construction contrasts with what was seen in the other four regions the CMHC tracks, which are Atlantic Canada, Quebec, the Prairies and British Columbia.

Home to one of North America’s hottest local real estate markets, British Columbia’s urban housing starts cooled to a SAAR of 31,587, marking a 5.7 per cent month-over-month fall.

Countrywide, the SAAR of housing starts was 165,861, down 3.9 per cent from the month before, and the trend measure — a six-month moving average that accounts for seasonal highs and lows — slumped to 199,169, down 2 per cent compared to December.

“The overall decline is mostly attributable to a slowdown in the Prairies where the housing starts trend was at a four-year low in January,” writes Bob Dugan, CMHC’s chief economist, in a statement.

“The slowdown in new housing activity coincides with an unemployment rate that is at a five-year high in Alberta,” he continues.

In the Prairies, an oil-producing region suffering from the effects of bottom-feeding crude prices, the SAAR of urban starts fell to 29,273 last month, a level 8.9 per cent lower than in December.

The CMHC defines a start “as the beginning of construction work on a building, usually when the concrete has been poured for the whole of the footing around the structure.” The national housing agency visits construction sites to assess progress.

The actual number of starts the CMHC counted as taking place last month in urban centres was 9,679 units, a 16 per cent decrease from activity levels seen a year earlier.

However, activity was virtually flat in the detached-home segment compared to the year before. The total of 3,081 homes that contractors started work on in January is just one dwelling short of January 2014’s groundbreaking tally.

The drop off in multi-unit construction was more pronounced. Projects started in January included a total of 6,598 units, down 21.9 per cent from a year ago.

Some observers had not expected the level of construction to ease at the level it did.

“The decline is a downside surprise given the incredibly favourable weather in parts of the country,” says Robert Kavcic, a BMO economist, in commentary.

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