Boosted by a dramatic rise in multifamily- housing construction, new home starts in Los Angeles County rose 74.2 percent in March compared with the same period a year earlier.

Construction permits were pulled for 1,516 apartments and condos, an increase of 124.6 percent over March 2010. But single-family activity was down, with just 191 permits pulled. That represented a 37.4 percent decline from a year ago, the Building Industry Association of Southern California reported Monday.

During the first three months of 2011, housing starts in L.A. County totaled 2,259, up 17 percent from a year ago. Again, the increase was driven by apartment and condo construction, as single-family permits were 23.7 percent lower than the first quarter of 2010.

Holly Schroeder, who heads the association's Los Angeles/Ventura chapter, said it was encouraging that production in Los Angeles County is picking up. Schroeder said the slow start this year was due to a large number of permits pulled at the end of 2010 to avoid costly new fire-sprinkler requirements that went into effect for all new construction on Jan. 1.

For any kind of sustained recovery to occur, builders and developers need help from local governments, she said.

"Cities and counties in the region need to work with builders and reduce fees, delay the collection of necessary fees to when the home is sold, and reduce other obstacles that drive up costs and make it less likely that a new-home development will pencil out," Schroeder said.

J.J. Abraham, the senior vice president of multifamily development and acquisitions for Shea Properties, said a significant amount of multifamily money has been sitting on the sidelines. And with the nation emerging from recession, pent-up demand for apartments is finally being met.

"Multifamily is a sleeping giant that has been awakened," he said. "And everyone is looking to feed it."

Many people still can't afford to buy a home, Abraham said, and getting a loan remains a challenge.

"Affordability levels are at all-time lows, and people's nest eggs went away," he said. "Now that the economy is coming back, you're seeing substantial growth rates in rental growth revenues."

New-home sales rose 11 percent last month from February to a seasonally adjusted rate of 300,000 homes, the Commerce Department said Monday. That follows three straight monthly declines. The pace remains far below the 700,000 homes a year that economists view as healthy.