Paul Sakuma, Associated Press
In this Nov. 22, 2011 photo, construction worker Will Capper works on a new house in Palo Alto, Calif. A surge in apartment construction gave builders more work in November. But 2011 is still shaping up to be one of the worst years in history for homebuilders.

WASHINGTON — A surge in apartment construction gave U.S. builders more work in November. But 2011 is still shaping up to be one of the worst years in history for homebuilders.

The Commerce Department says builders broke ground on a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 685,000 homes last month, a 9.3 percent jump from October. That's the highest level since April 2010.

Still, that's far below the 1.2 million homes that economists say would be built each year in a healthy housing market.

Building permits, a gauge of future construction, rose by 5.7 percent. The increase was spurred by more apartment permits.

Though new homes represent just 20 percent of the overall home market, they have an outsize impact on the economy. Each home built creates an average of three jobs for a year and generates about $90,000 in taxes, according to the National Association of Home Builders.

Over the past year, apartment permits have surged roughly 63 percent. Single-family permits have increased just 6.6 percent in that time.

Home construction and sales are in the midst of one of its worst years ever. Demand for new homes is weak. Record-low mortgage rates and plunging home prices have done little to help.

Builders are struggling to compete with deeply discounted foreclosures and short sales. Short sales occur when lenders allow homes to be sold for less than what's owed on the mortgage. Few homes are selling.

After previous recessions, housing accounted for at least 15 percent of U.S. economic growth. Since the recession officially ended in June 2009, it has contributed just 4 percent.

In October, sales of new homes rose slightly, largely because builders cut their prices in the face of weak demand.

Renting has become a preferred option for many Americans who lost their jobs during the recession and were forced to leave their houses.

Another reason sales have fallen is that previously occupied homes have become a better deal than new homes. The median price of a new home is about 30 percent higher than the median price for a resale. That's nearly twice the markup typical in a healthy housing market.

The homebuilders' trade group said this week that its survey of industry sentiment rose in December to 21, the highest level since May 2010. Still, any reading below 50 indicates negative sentiment about the housing market. The index hasn't reached 50 since April 2006, the peak of the housing boom.