What We Earn


Discussions about housing affordability focus almost exclusively on the price of the real estate, movements in which are monitored by multiple organisations on a seemingly daily basis. There is comparatively little discussion about people’s incomes, which are equally as important as prices in determining what can and can’t be reasonably afforded. The income profile of what most Australian’s actually earn paints a sobering picture which could more often be taken into account in debates about housing and affordability.

It’s becoming fashionable again for business lobbies to complain about Australia’s high wage structure. It explains, they’ll argue, why we lost Holden, Ford, Toyota, and (almost) Qantas, among other things. And yes, Australia’s wages are high by competitor standards - but so are our costs. One of the most fundamental of needs, along with food and clothing, is shelter. And it’s the cost of shelter relative to incomes which has been stretched to beyond reach for a large proportion of young Australians.

Reducing minimum wages or reducing wage growth further, if at the same time allowing housing costs to further escalate, will only make this situation worse. Arguably, if we could substantially reduce the cost of supplying new housing, this would relieve upward pressure on wages and work towards improving our global competitiveness – along with repairing living standards for working and middle class families, rather than eroding them.

First, here are some of the facts on the infrequently discussed income side of the equation. (I am again indebted to the team at Urban Economics for making these available. These are top line numbers only: if you want more detailed analysis, please contact Kerrianne Bonwick).

Nearly two in three of all Australians earn less than $52,000 per annum. It doesn’t much matter whether it’s Brisbane, Sydney or Melbourne; the proportion is roughly the same.  It’s not much. Slightly more than another one in every eight earn from $52,000 to $78,000 per annum. Roughly eight in ten Australians earn less than $78,000 per annum.

Personal Incomes




< $52,000








$78,000 to $104,000




> $104,000




Not Stated




Source: Urban Economics

Problem? It is if you’re trying to buy into the housing market. Take a modest house of say $400,000 (very modest depending on location). A worker on $50,000 – and these represent nearly two thirds of all workers remember – is facing a price multiple which is 8 times their gross pre-tax income.  Basically, two thirds of us are stuffed in terms of affording even a modest $400,000 property if we weren’t already in the market. A more reasonable price multiple of say 5 times income would require an income of $80,000 per annum or more. But there are less than 15% of Australians who fit this category.

But wait, shouldn’t we count household, as opposed to personal, incomes? A good point, particularly for younger families and young couples, where dual incomes are the norm due to necessity.

But even based on combined household incomes, a third of all households earn less than $52,000 per annum. Another 14% to 15% earn between $52,000 and $78,000 and another 11% or 12% earn between $78,000 and $104,000. A reasonably healthy 30% of all households bring in a combined $104,000 per annum or more, but seven in ten bring in less than that.

Taking our modest $400,000 home again, and  roughly half of all household incomes fall short of the $80,000 mark required for a price-to-income multiple of five. For one in three of every households, their combined income means a price to income multiple of eight times. They are pretty much stuffed, still.

Household Incomes




< $52,000








$78,000 to $104,000




$104,000 - $156,000




$156,000 - $208,000




> $208,000




Not Stated




Source: Urban Economics

Hang on, isn’t it more relevant to focus on the demographic that’s more likely to be trying to get into the property market, because older people and retirees, who already own or are paying off homes, may skew the figures? Absolutely: this is the key demographic, especially if you’re a developer of new detached housing product - which is what this cohort mainly wants to buy to raise a family in (as opposed to the apartment they might rent while pre-children).

Personal income profiles of the 25-34 year old age group are pretty much in line with the Australia wide picture. More than half earn less than $52,000 and roughly eight in ten earn less than $78,000 per annum, which means eight in ten of this age group – who are at the peak of their family formation potential – would be faced with a price multiple of more than 5 times incomes on a $400,000 property, and more than half would be faced with a price multiple which is eight times their income, or more.

Personal Incomes 25-34 year olds

25-34year olds




< $52,000








$78,000 to $104,000




> $104,000




Not Stated




Source: Urban Economics

None of this is great news. For developers trying to provide affordable new housing in new greenfield estates in urban fringe locations, the reality of these income profiles can’t be escaped. I had the privilege of visiting one such estate in south east Queensland recently and what I saw was absolutely first class product at very good entry level prices in a very well designed environment. No ‘McMansions’ here – just quality new detached three and four bedroom homes, on small lots, priced from around $350,000 - and in some cases less.

But even at $350,000, only around 15% or so of the target 25 to 34 year old demographic could afford to get in with a price multiple of less than 5 times an individual’s income. That proportion would rise taking into account combined incomes for this age group, but it won’t rise beyond around a quarter or a third.  The reality is that more than half this age group would find an entry level $350,000 home would be six times their combined incomes or more. It would be tough going.

Granted, interest rates are currently very low and some governments are offering stamp duty and other concessions to first time buyers. But these are having next to no impact on this market. Rates of first home buyer activity are at generational lows.  And interest rates won’t stay this low forever. A significant rise in variable home loan rates could tip a substantial number of families in this age group from the ‘just making it’ basket into the ‘we’re stuffed’ basket.

Since the ‘do nothing’ policy approach doesn’t seem to be working, what could be done to turn the situation around? Basically, it’s a simple formula between incomes and prices. You either increase incomes or reduce prices. The first probably isn’t an option unless incomes can gradually creep up with inflation and with productivity gains over time.

But what could also happen is the cost of supplying new housing (not referring to existing stock) could be reduced. New housing is heavily taxed and over regulated (the same cannot be said of existing stock). Something like a quarter to a third of the cost of the new home in an urban fringe location is due entirely to various taxes, charges and compliance costs (which do not apply to existing stock). It is also affected by the rapid escalation in land costs due to policy induced supply constraints in areas of ample available land (the same can’t be said of existing stock in mostly built-out inner or middle ring areas). Most of these additional costs of supply owe themselves to policy changes made since the early 2000s – precisely the time when the affordability gap began to widen.

It does seem a compelling place to start.

We should aspire to a more competitive Australia but this policy effort cannot just focus on labour costs because our incomes, while high by competitor standards, are now generally insufficient to cover one of the basic necessities of life: shelter. We have made this happen because policy makers have deliberately increased the cost of delivering new housing with new taxes, charges and compliance costs, all justified on esoteric planning or sustainability principles but impossible to justify on social equity or economic grounds.

These policy changes were made to suit political agendas at the time: they were not needs-based or market-based policy changes. (It also has to be said the political agendas at the time were in the hands of Labor State governments, starting with Bob Carr in NSW but which spread rapidly to other jurisdictions. Why Labor Governments introduced policies which hurt people on working wages is as mystifying to me as to why Liberal Governments have continued to maintain the same policy positions, with minimal amendment).

The gap between the cost of supplying even relatively basic housing on the urban fringe, and the incomes of the people who in past generations could afford it, will continue to widen unless regulators and policy makers begin to grasp the wider economic consequences of policy-inflated costs for new housing supply.

Footnote: why a five times multiple? There is no strong reason. The authors of the global housing affordability report Demographia will argue that affordable housing should be around three times incomes. Moderately unaffordable they define as between 3 and 4, and between 4 and 5 is defined as ‘seriously unaffordable.’ The multiples of 7 or 8 times incomes, which we’re seeing in Australia, are off the scale. But for the purpose of argument, if even relatively high (by international standards) multiples of 5 times incomes seems like a utopian dream, it illustrates how far incomes need to rise or costs of new supply should fall before we get even close to the situation that prevailed for most of our history. It’s a big challenge.

Ross Elliott has more than 20 years experience in property and public policy. His past roles have included stints in urban economics, national and state roles with the Property Council, and in destination marketing. He has written extensively on a range of public policy issues centering around urban issues, and continues to maintain his recreational interest in public policy through ongoing contributions such as this or via his monthly blog The Pulse.

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Incomes aren't the problem, housing supply is

The median multiple of 3 seems to be the level that a market finds when it is not distorted by growth constraints that inflate land rent. In a market under these conditions, it seems that there is housing available for all income levels, at 3 times the level of each income. There really is $90,000 homes for $30,000 income earners.

These are of course low value structures, usually depreciated as well as small, and low value sites, again usually comparatively small. Because of a low and flat urban land rent curve, the structure represents most value, and therefore often more centrally located homes are more affordable because they are older and more depreciated.

However in any city with a median multiple of 6+ which is always due to fringe growth rationing of some kind, the tail of home prices at the low end is completely eliminated. There is seldom even $180,000 homes available for the $30,000 income earner. The absolute bottom of the market tends to be 10 or more times the level of a “low” income. This is because it is the land value that has inflated the most, and this completely swamps the value of the structures in more central locations. The land value might have inflated something like 10 times, which seems to result in the median price home being 6 or more times the median household income.

But the distortion in "house" price is uneven across the range of prices. The impact is least on the people at the very top end of society, who might now have to spend 4.5 times their income to obtain the same mansion that previously cost them 3 times their income. This is the mother of all disparate impacts.

Of course the pattern of home purchases is completely dislocated across society; someone in the middle quintile or higher may well choose to buy a home at 3 times their income, which will be a home that previously they would never have deigned to live in, and which would have been bought by a low income earner for $90,000. I have literally watched the RE market evolve like this. I see apparently well-employed double-income couples in homes with pre-WW2 plumbing, rusty roof iron, and floor supports collapsing – which cost them well over half a million dollars.

The problem with trying to "increase incomes" to "solve the housing affordability crisis" is that under the conditions of distorted supply, urban land prices will always rise as fast as incomes do. The fact that incomes are high in Hong Kong or Los Angeles or London does not mean that the housing price median multiple is lower, in fact it tends to be higher. A city with incomes already twice as high and house prices 4 times as high as a benchmark like Houston, does NOT need to address "incomes" to solve the problem.

In fact there are mechanisms by which increasing land rent sucked out of the real economy, constrains producivity growth and income growth. The UK's productivity gap is probably mostly due to its urban planning system. Focusing on other means of forcing incomes up won't help at all.

Back to the bad old days

The way it has usually been in most places for most of human history:

The very few at or near the top, who get to enjoy most of the income and the things that one can buy with it, like nice roomy houses.

The very many at or near the bottom, who get to do most of the work, get very little income for it, and at best have to make do with very tiny and inadequate housing at best - or with an overcrowded firetrap tenement or a cobbled-together shanty in a favela.

Well, egalitarian prosperity was nice while it lasted.

Stefan Stackhouse
Black Mountain NC