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After watching other Western real estate markets run off with the gold through most of the 1980s, the Salt Lake City area can bask in the fact that it was the only one in the West to log increases in housing construction in 1990 - and a hefty increase at that.

Moreover, Salt Lake had the second highest growth rate of any major market nationally.According to U.S. Housing Markets, a quarterly publication of Lomas Mortgage USA, a national mortgage lending firm based in Dallas, Salt Lake City issued residential building permits for 3,792 units 1990, a 12 percent increase over 1989. Statewide, permits were up 21 percent.

Compare that to former "hot" real estate markets such as Los Angeles, Orange County and Riverside/San Bernardino: down 48 percent, 37 percent and 37 percent, respectively, last year.

Or even Las Vegas, the "boom town" of the late '80s, down 16 percent; Denver/

Boulder down 4 percent; San Francisco, down 18 percent; Seattle down 18 percent; San Francisco down 39 percent; Portland down 14 percent; Phoenix down 4 percent; and Sacramento down 21 percent.

According to the report, published this week, both upper and entry level housing construction in Salt Lake showed improvement last year, particularly in South Jordan, Sandy and the East Bench area overall. Single-family housing construction permits were up 7 percent for the year. Only single family construction in the price range of $130,000 to $150,000 was termed "slow."

Lomas cites Salt Lake's employment growth of 3.4 percent for the year - near the top of the list for larger metro areas nationwide - for much of the housing demand. With the Salt Lake market adding 16,000 jobs, it was one of the few metro areas with growth in the manufacturing sector, the report said.

That also means good news for long beleaguered owners of rental properties - conversely, bad news for renters - as four consecutive years of very low multifamily residential construction dropped rental apartment vacancy rates to 3.4 percent in 1990, the lowest since 1983.

Vacancies in a 20,000-unit local survey have steadily declined since 1986 when they topped 20 percent, the report shows. Few apartment owners are now offering incentives to renters and average rents locally were up $15-$20 a month over 1989.

In the report's "Winners & Losers" column, Salt Lake City's 12 percent growth in residential construction was the second highest in the nation. Only Dallas/Fort Worth, with a 34.3 percent increase issued more housing permits in 1990. Three of the other top six (only six metro areas showed gains nationwide in 1990) were in Texas: Houston up 8.3 percent; San Antonio up 4.2 percent; and Austin up 1.4 percent.

Other than Salt Lake and the four Texas metro areas, only Kansas City, up 2.1 percent, showed a gain last year.

The largest decline in 1990 was in the Hartford, Conn., metro area, which had a 51.4 percent decline. Other "Losers" included West Palm Beach, down 48.2 percent; Northern & Central New Jersey down 43.4 percent; New York/Long Island down 39.2 percent; Miami/Fort Lauderdale down 33.8 percent.

An earlier Lomas report listed Salt Lake City as among the nation's "least affordable" cities for housing, along with Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle/Tacoma, New York,Atlanta, Denver/Boulder, Portland and Dallas/Fort Worth.

Statewide, however, a study by national real estate firm Century 21 placed Utah in the least expensive quarter of the states with the average price of a single-family home in Utah placed at $60,122. The lowest was Oklahoma at $49,828; the highest was Hawaii at $281,042. Massachusetts at $168,840 and California was third at $166,423.