This graph is stolen from Calculated Risk, one of the best known economics and business websites.
I wish the graph went back to 1900, but data was pretty dodgy prior to World War II. There are a few notable things about this, not least of which is the big hole we're in right now.
The big spikes in housing starts in the 1970's reveals the volatility of the homebuilding market, and more significantly, the demographic surge of the Baby Boom generation. Housing responds directly to population growth (or should, at least) and by my rough calculations this country needs to build somewhere around 1.1 million homes a year just to keep pace with household formation. NAHB is predicting a mild upswing in starts for 2011, but I don't think the credit markets are ready yet. I think there will be surge at some point, probably 2012ish, and I base this prediction on nothing more than my gut. If the surge occurs prior to the election, Obama gets four more years. That much building activity will help draw down unemployment and people will be happy again. We'll see.