Development of new private residential units was at a stable level in the first half amid better market sentiment. Latest figures from the Hong Kong Monthly Digest of Statistics show the Government issued consents to start work on 18,481 private flats in the first half - up 7 per cent from the 17,267 units approved a year earlier. Private housing starts for last year were 33,843 units, close to the Government's housing target of 35,000 units a year. There were 40,962 private housing starts in 1997 and 22,113 in 1996. Knight Frank director of valuation Anthony Lau Chun-kuen said market sentiment in the first half had improved and developers appeared keen to start projects. But he said sentiment had since weakened and he doubted whether developers would continue to push ahead with projects. 'Developers will have to continue building properties for sale in future. But they may choose to start works on projects one by one,' he said. Figures from the Buildings Department showed consents were given for start of work on 3,290 domestic units in July and August. Analysts said unless there was a strong pick-up in housing starts in the rest of the year, it would be hard to match last year's levels. Some said private housing starts would remain active, if not rise, because of the Government drive to increase land and housing supply. Developers could not afford to hold land banks for too long. They would have to start projects then sell properties to recoup their investment, said the analysts. Home Ownership Scheme (HOS) subsidised housing starts in the first half followed the private housing trend. Consents to start work were granted for 16,224 units, up 7 per cent from a year ago. But new public rental flats dropped substantially. Only 5,044 units were approved in the half, down 80 per cent from 26,363 in the period last year. For all of last year, consents were given to start work on 57,875 public rental flats and 37,075 HOS units.