WASHINGTON - Housing construction in June climbed to the highest level since the beginning of the year and fewer American workers filed claims for unemployment benefits, more hopeful signs that the economy may be gaining traction.
The Commerce Department reported Thursday that the number of housing projects builders broke ground on rose 3.7 percent in June from May to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.80 million units, the strongest showing since January.
The increase came despite wet weather in some parts of the country and followed a sizable 6.8 percent advance registered in May.
‘‘Low mortgage rates, which although having ticked up recently remain at historically low levels, are the primary driver of the booming housing market,’’ said Matthew Ellis, an economist at Wachovia.
In another report, the Labor Department said that for the work week ending July 12, new applications for jobless benefits dropped by a seasonally adjusted 29,000 to 412,000, a three-week low.
Although economists said that the weekly figure could be distorted by temporary plant closings that occur around this time each year, they felt heartened by a solid drop in the more stable, fourweek moving average of claims, which smooths out weekly fluctuations.
The moving average fell by 3,500 last week to 424,000, the lowest level in three months.
Although jobless claims remain above 400,000, a level associated with a sluggish jobs market, the declines offered hope that the pace of layoffs may be stabilizing, economists said.
The number of workers collecting unemployment benefits for more than a week plunged by 117,000 to 3.65 million for the work week ending July 5, the most recent period for which that information is available — and the lowest level since late April.
‘‘The rate of job loss is abating,’’ said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Economy.com. But for jobseekers ‘‘the market is still very difficult,’’ he said.
The reports came as a group of academic economists declared the 2001 recession officially over. The National Bureau of Economic Research, the recognized arbiter of when recessions begin and end in the United States, said the recession ended in November 2001, only eight months after it began.