HPP 411 Research essay
Housing affordability, policy failure or a roaring, failing success?
Part 1 of this paper examines the facts, history and causes of today’s housing affordability crisis in Australia, and the pattern of federal government action and inaction on this issue. Part 2 argues that Sabatier’s “advocacy coalition model” provides us with the best theoretical framework to understand why successive ALP and Coalition governments have failed to make policies to reign in escalating property prices. In order to understand what has add has not been done, the paper argues, we need to question whether our policy-makers have tried, but failed to be “a benevolent agency whose primary objective is to ameliorate the conditions of the disadvantaged.”(Jacobs 2015a: 53) It contends instead that policy in this subsystem has been captured by an advocacy coalition of housing suppliers and the financial sector able to call upon the mass electoral support of owner-occupiers and landlord-investors, and the decades-old bipartisan consensus on the fundamental wisdom of neoliberal assumptions about state, market, society and property as an asset, not right or residence.
1. Housing affordability, boom and crisis
As Milligan & Tiernan have commented (2011, 391), affordable housing and its provision is “vital to economic participation and productivity”:
Secure, affordable housing is essential to employment and educational outcomes and it has been an important source of investment and wealth creation, especially for Australian households who own their own homes …
The promise of being able to provide affordable home ownership was especially important in shaping Australian nationhood. By 1941, over half of Australians owned their own homes, and home ownership was central to postwar nation-building (Millegan & Tiernan 2011: 391-392). By 1981, 73% of adult Australians were owning their own homes. (Dalton 2009: 65) Importantly, home ownership was an ‘Australian dream’ which included Australians from across a wide range of income groups (Beer 1993: 147). Post-war Australia could pride itself on being “a unique wage earner’s welfare state that was centred on mass homeownership”, in favorable contrast to other nations (Milligan & Pinnegar 2010: 326).
As has been well-documented, by 2018 this is no longer so. Indeed, between 1981 and 2018, as (for example) the recent Grattan Institute report Reimaging the Australian Dream documents (Daley et al 2018), the picture has changed almost completely. Housing ownership as a whole has declined to something around 67%. Yet, since 1995, house prices have risen and risen by the staggering figure of about 5% a year—and from about 4 times median income to over 7 times that figure today (Daley et al 2018: 15-16). In our capitals, led by Sydney and Melbourne, the rises have been most rapid, hiking about 30% since the end of 2014 alone (Daley et al 2018: 16-17): effectively meaning that many properties in these cities are ‘earning’ more per annum than many low-income Australians.
To put these things in perspective, average household income rose about 10 times between 1975 and 2015: a figure which roughly tracks the consumer price index. In that time, house prices rose by something around 30 times. In February 2015, the average house price in Sydney was around $850000, well over ten times median annual income. Melbourne’s median house price was about $615000. By 2018, this Melburnian figure has surpassed that of Sydney in 2015, while Sydney’s median price is now over $1 million.
As a result, Australian spending on housing has hiked after 1980. From around 10% of total pre-tax household income at that time, it is presently around 14% in early-mid 2018 (Daley, Coates, Wiltshire, Percival & Robertson 2018, 14). More than ever, this expenditure is given over to paying down mortgage debt. The figures here are again troubling: from around 70% of household disposable income in 2000, housing debt is now more than 130%. Total household debt as of 2018 is around 190% of household after-tax income (Daley, Coates, Wiltshire, Percival & Robertson 2018, 87), a situation that has caught the concerned attention of international institutions (Soos 2015). In 2014, for example, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) sent an economic team to Australia to examine “the risks posed by property speculation and record-high household debt as part of a broad health check-up of the sagging domestic economy.” By late 2014, Australian homes were rated the third-least affordable of OECD countries’, behind New Zealand and Canada. By 2015, Australia’s housing was the second least affordable globally, following only Hong Kong.
There are serious equity implications here—by which we mean social, as well as financial equity. It is not just that the steepest house price increases have occurred amongst lower-price housing stocks, as against houses in the higher ‘deciles'(*). This is creating the kind of situation described last month in an Anglicare report on housing affordability for people on benefits in Sydney, suggesting that nearly no houses are affordable in that metropole for the most disadvantaged (*). More than this, the period of the ‘housing boom’, as it is sometimes called, has seen an unprecedented intergenerational transfer of wealth: “a once-off change that is unlikely to recur to help younger generations” (Daley et al 2018: *). Rates of home-ownership rates among 25-34 year olds have plummeted. It is of course normal that the young should own less than older demographics. Yet in 1981, more than 60% of 25-34 year olds owned their own homes in Australia, as against only 48% by 2011. By 2018, the figure for 25-34s is around 45%, still going South. Grattan Institute research suggests that while 65-74 year olds were $480,000 wealthier in real terms in 2016, as against 2002, in the same period, 25-34s’ wealth has stagnated (Daley, Coates, Wiltshire, Percival & Robertson 2018: *).
Of course, multiple factors underlie these figures. Yet the principal factor is the rise in the price of the deposits necessary to enter the market. Whereas in the early 1990s it took six years to save a 20% deposit for an average-cost home, by 2018, it now will take around ten years for a middle-income Australian household to raise the capital for a deposit (Daley, Coates, Wiltshire, Percival & Robertson 2018: *). As a result, there are intragenerational equity effects emerging too, as increasing numbers of younger Australians are forced to rely on their wealthier parents (‘the bank of dad/mum’) to enter the market: a situation which favours some young Australians over others.
In these circumstances, it is unsurprising that more Australians are renting for longer. Around 2.6 million Australians, or just under one third, were renting privately by 2016; another extraordinary jump from just 12% as late as the mid-1990s. Rental prices have increased less rapidly than housing prices. Yet lower-income households presently spend a larger proportion of income on rent than previous generations of tenants, and miss out on the taxation benefits in place for owners and landlords (*). Again, this is especially the case in the big capitals, where the proportion of low-income renters allocating more than 30% of their gross income on rents (and as such, considered to be suffering ‘housing stress’) increased from 36% in 2007 to 47% by 2015-16 (*). Some Australian renters benefit from Commonwealth Rent Assistance. But, as Reimagining the Australian Dream comments:
this is less than 6% of the total housing benefits that governments provide. By contrast, home-owners and investors receive more than 90% of the benefits of major housing policies (Daley, Coates, Wiltshire, Percival & Robertson 2018:*).
The last decades in Australia have seen what Milligan and Pinnegar (2011: 326) call a longstanding “retraction of national action on housing in Australia”, if not what Dalton (2007) terms a “retrenchment”. By 1986 and financial deregulation, previous Federal governments’ direct support for low-income homeowners and first homebuyers, plus publicly-regulated mortgage interest rates, had all been all scrapped. Direct state government provision of social housing had begun to flatline, so that while in the last two decades the population has grown by some 33%, the stock of public housing remains at around 400,000. (Daley et al 2018: 62; Jacobs, Berry, & Dalton 2013; Hayward 1996) In response to a rise in low-income renters experiencing effective poverty after meeting accommodation expenses, the Hawke-Keating government introduced a direct rental assistance program. Yet the same ALP government also introduced ‘negative gearing’: the ability to deduct losses on an investment property from taxable income at the marginal rate. Ostensibly a means to stimulate private investment in rental housing, this policy is now agreed to be one source of Australia’s continuing, extraordinary house-price inflation. By 2014-15, figures suggest that 1.3 million Australian landlords reported collective losses of $11 billion on investment properties, representing (amongst other things) a significant loss in federal tax revenue (Daley et al 2018: 36).
The Howard years (1996-2007), coinciding with historic mining and real estate booms, saw Federal government intervention in housing policy rolled back. The Howard government’s 1999 reform of capital gains tax (CGT) on the sale of owner-occupied homes added fuel to the inflationary fire. (Daley et al 2018: 36-37) According to this reform, tax is levied on only 50% of the nominal capital gain on any asset, including houses, held for more than one year: Treasury in 2017 estimated that it “benefits home-owners to the tune of $35 billion per year” (Daley et al 2018: 35 n. 109) and motivates demand for home ownership, conceived as itself a form of investment. In response to concerns following the introduction of the GST, Mr Howard also introduced the First Home Owners Grant (FHOG) in 2000: albeit without either an income test for claimants or any upper limit on the purchase price of homes (Tiernan & Burke 2002: 94; Burke & Tulse 2010: 834; Eslake 2013). Little was however done on the supply-side, to balance these demand-side reforms. Immigration into Australia has increased substantially from around 2005, and Australia’s population has grown since that time by around 350,000 people per year, up from around 220,000 per annum the previous decade. (Daley et al 2018: 45) But new housing stock, especially for lower-income renters and buyers—and especially in the capitals where population growth has been most rapid—has failed to keep up (Daley et al 2018: 43-45). Indeed, for much of the decade from 2005-14, annual housing construction did not even match the average rates of the previous quarter-century. (Daley et al 2018: 43) Economic data suggests that a 10% increase in dwelling prices tends to lead to an increase in the stock of new housing of only 3-5% in Australia —an ‘inelasticity’ of supply effected by often-clunky State and local-government zoning laws, and by the resistance of residents to higher-density dwellings in their suburbs (Daley et al 2018: 43, 103, 133).
The Rudd years (2007-2010) saw a brief “comeback” for housing policy issues to the federal agenda (Milligan & Pinnegar 2011): the return of a dedicated Housing Minister, the 2009 establishment of the NAHA (National Affordable Housing Agreement) (Milligan & Tannegar 2010: 329); and the NRAS (National Rental Affordability Scheme) providing subsidies to stimulate building of low-cost rental accommodation (Milligan & Tiernan 2011: 400-403). Yet, with the ascension of Julia Gillard in June 2010, the Housing Ministry was again scrapped. Meanwhile, the NRAS, dogged by implementation issues (loc cit.) was shelved and has not been restored under Abbott and Turnbull’s Coalition governments. Today, issues surrounding homelessness, public housing, housing affordability and planning remain dispersed across multiple portfolios, and uneasily contested between the Commonwealth and State governments (Milligan & Tinnegar 2011: 339). The proportion of Australian dwellings with subsidised rental has not increased, but actually fallen from the mid-1990s peak to under 5% today (Daley et al 2018: 62-63). As we will comment below, housing affordability became an election issue in 2016, as Bill Shorten’s ALP took a proposal to roll back negative gearing to the polls. Despite the organised opposition we will address in due course, this remains the ALPs position in the lead-up to the 2018/19 vote, but remains opposed by the Coalition.
2. analysis: what kind of failure?
The action and inaction of a succession of Australian federal and state governments since 1996 surrounding housing might well be upheld as a prime example of policy failure, with the most serious implications. The questions of what kind of failure it represents, however, and how that failure is best understood, are nevertheless complex. As Tiernan and Burke have contended in an important 2002 article, the “stages heuristic”, which pictures policy-making as a more or less rational process of discrete policy cycles, running from problem recognition, via agenda setting and formulation, to decision-making and implementation (Deleon 1999), looks hopelessly flatfooted when confronted with the messy realities of Australian housing policy. The housing affordability crisis has been brewing for two decades. No single policy-measure or “cycle” is at stake in its causes and effects. More than this, there seems little evidence of “policy learning” from seemingly failed, but popular measures—like first home buyers’ grants, which data suggests simply inflates house prices, passing the benefits onto sellers but that has nevertheless been implemented by almost all Australian governments from Menzies to Turnbull (Eslake 2013). Neither can we point to implementation failures, as these are usually understood—with the notable exception of the NRAS (Milligan & Pinnegar* : 400-03). If anything, what seems to be the issue is that certain policy measures, long called for by independent researcher and groups like the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI), have simply been excluded from consideration at the “agenda-setting” stage.
On these bases, Tiernan and Burke’s contention (2002) is that we should instead turn to the “garbage can” model for understanding policy-making proposed by Kingdon (1995) and others, if we are to understand housing policy and its vicissitudes in Australia. On this model, the policies in a given area which are actually implemented are as much the product of contingency and chaos, as rational planning. As Kingdon (1995) depicts policy-making, whether some policy-formulation is implemented does not depend only or primarily on the rational consideration of evidence-based proposals by benevolent but otherwise-unbound political agents. Everything depends instead upon the relatively unpredictable opening up of “policy windows” (Kingdon 1995: 88), wherein the balance of forces in the political situation allows for “policy entrepreneurs” to successfully “sell” a policy, as a solution to a now-recognised problem, to decision-makers, when this policy might otherwise have languished untried:
the key to understanding agenda change is the coupling of the “streams” of problems, policies, and politics. The separate streams come together at critical times. A problem is recognised, a solution is available, the political climate makes the time right for change, and the constraints do not prohibit action (Kingdon 1995:: 88).
Seen in this light, Tiernan and Burke argue, Australian housing policy represents a field where such “critical” moments have not opened up—at least when it comes to politically-difficult policy options long advocated for by the AHURI, Grattan Institute, and other independent voices, such as expanding public housing stock, freeing zoning laws and encouraging medium-density housing growth in the major capitals, incentivising low-price housing supply, and cutting tax-benefits to owner-occupiers and landlord-investors. Tiernan and Burke adduce a variety of reasons why the streams have not converged for these prospective solutions. There is the “cross-cutting” nature of issues surrounding housing:
housing waxes and wanes between issues of affordability, quality, … housing and urban form, home ownership, private sector regeneration and mortgage interest rates, among others. (Tiernan & Burke 2002: 89)
There is the predominantly market-based distribution of housing in Australia, at least after the 1980s, in which governments have agreed to leave the residential market “free” in boom periods, only addressing issues when they become the subjects of media and public concern (Tiernan & Burke 2002: 89). Until the last decade, those negatively affected by housing supply shortages and affordability issues remained a relatively small proportion of the voting population (loc cit.)—a consideration we’ll return to presently. Again, Tiernan and Burke point to a highly dispersed policy subsystem (but see appendix 1 below) in which “each issue attracts new participants who, more often than not, have competing policy positions” (2002: 89). Finally, they highlight the frequent changing of the governmental instruments charged with addressing housing policy, as preventing any accumulation of policy experience and knowledge:
Frequent turnover of participants, the inherently conflictual nature of the federal–state relationship and the intermittent interventions of central agency interests have precluded the development of common beliefs and understandings of issues such as is characteristic of more integrated and stable policy communities (Tiernan & Burke 2002: 90).
If the policy cycle model is of little value in explaining the Australian housing policy landscape, nevertheless, there are also arguably limits to the “garbage can” conception. The problem with this kind of approach is that it can screen out from vision the efficacy of relatively well-organised, strategically-rational interest groups: the kinds of groupings which Paul Sabatier has described as “advocacy coalitions”. In Sabatier’s definition (1988: 139), an advocacy coalition brings together:
people from a variety of positions (elected and agency officials, interest group leaders, researchers) who share a particular belief system—i.e. a set of basic values, causal assumptions, and problems—and who show a non-trivial degree of coordinated activity over time.
It is telling in this light that, at the same time as they suggest that no such “coalition” has emerged in Australian housing, Tiernan and Burke’s historical framing of the issue (2002:92-93) nevertheless points to the importance of the “new managerialist” reforms of the Hawke-Keating and then Howard years as one cause for these governments’ failure to consider non-market-based instruments and actions. This, in the decisive period in the 1990s in which house prices began to escalate relative to median incomes, and the shortfalls in lower-income housing began to manifest. “In a different political climate,” they reflect:
high waiting lists might have been seen as a measure of the need for, and confidence in, public housing and as a rationale for an expanded sector; the high number of low-income households on rental rebates as evidence of effective targeting; the age of stock as a rationale for increased funding; and the concentration of stock in areas of disadvantage as evidence of failed regional policies and the need for programs of urban or regional renewal. Yet these problems were not defined in such terms. Rather, they were seen as evidence of a systemic management failure of public housing. In an era where new managerialism had captured key bureaucrats, consultants and other policy influentials, policy alternatives which proposed an expansion of public housing did not survive … (Tiernan & Burke 2002: 93)
According to Sabatier’s “advocacy coalition framework” (see figure 1 overleaf), different, usually competing advocacy coalitions within a policy subsystem seek to influence policy-makers to adopt their “fundamental policy positions”, as well as favoured means of policy-funding and implementation. Yet these competing coalitions do not act in a vacuum. They are faced with both short- and long-term “opportunity structures” (built into the political-institutional system) and external conditions (such as economic constraints, changing governments, public opinion, and the behaviour of other subsystems). Importantly, each coalition’s “core beliefs”—like, for instance, the “new managerialism” Tiernan and Burke identify in the quote above—also serve as an interpretive filter (Sabatier & Weible 2007: 194). They determine what “learning” from policy experience will be considered, and what excluded from shaping the policy debate and agenda. Accordingly, changes in such “core beliefs”—and the delimitations of the “basic attributes of the area” and “fundamental sociocultural values” that a coalition’s hegemony within any subsystem brings with it (see figure 1)—may take a long time, even decades, to occur: an experience Sabatier (1988: 31, 36) goes so far as to compare to a “religious conversion”.
Figure 1: the advocacy coalition model (from Sabatier & Weible 2007)
Contra Tiernan and Burke (2002), Sabatier’s advocacy coalition framework seems to me to provide the right kind of account of the complex but not chaotic factors shaping policy learning and non-learning in the Australian housing policy subsystem since the mid-1990s. Saul Eslake is perhaps being too glib by half when he closes his analysis of “50 years of housing failure” (2013) with this off-handed analysis of the cause of continuing federal failures to meaningfully address affordability:
While political parties and governments profess to care about first home buyers, the reality is that in a typical year fewer than 100,000 people succeed in attaining home ownership for the first time; whereas there are some 5.8 million households (and over 8 million people) who already own at least one property. Hence there are 100,000 votes for policies which might result in lower house prices, and over 8 million votes against policies which might result in lower house prices … As the Americans say: ‘do the math’.
It was in fact Mr. Howard who (in)famously remarked: “I don’t get people stopping me in the street and saying, ‘John you’re outrageous, under your government the value of my house has increased'” (at Daley, Coates, Wiltshire, Percival & Robertson 2018: 91). But it is not simply Australian owner-occupiers and landlord-investors who have stood by gaining as house prices floated out of reach of a growing minority of younger, poorer Australians. Keith Jacobs (2015a) in particular has examined the influence in shaping Australian housing policy of private sector lobbyists hailing from the two industries who have most directly benefited from the real estate bubble: on the one hand, producer associations such as the HIA (Housing Industry Association), the MBA (Master Builders’ Association) and the RCA (Residential Council of Australia); and on the other, representatives of the banking and financial sector led by the MFAA (Mortgage and Finance Association of Australia) (Jacobs 2015a: 696). By 2015, residential mortgages accounted (astonishingly) for over 60% of total Asutralian loans, and around 40% of banking industry assets (Byres 2015: 2). So, as Wayne Byrnes, chair of APRA (the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority) quipped at that time: “With such a concentration in a single business line, we in the finance sector are all banking on housing lending remaining ‘as safe as houses'” (loc cit.). But not simply banking. Drawing on interviews with advocacy coalition insiders, Jacobs shows how these lobbyists have engaged in both formal (requests for consultation) and informal (meetings, dinners, media activity …) means of lobbying federal and state governments (Jacobs 2015: 696-708). As one interviewee commented:
You’re able to influence what gets put into Cabinet submissions, you get to influence what public servants are saying to their ministers that type of thing . . . that’s the sort of area where a lot of work goes on your members don’t see. (at Jacobs 2015a: 698-99)
In decisive moments, such as Mr. Hawke’s 1990 proposal to shelve negative gearing, Jacobs’ interviewees confirm the decisive power of industry lobbyists in shaping and unshaping policy :
The Hawke’s government’s removal of the negative gearing advantages from rental housing resulted in uproar; largely motivated and inspired by industry . . . there was a coincidental increase in rental prices in NSW that were more to do with the shortage than they were to do with any withdrawal of rental housing from the market and it didn’t happen in other places, so it was just hooey but a little bit of evidence goes a very long way when you have a large measure of agreement against a policy you don’t like … (at Jacobs 2015a: 701 italics added)
As we know, history repeated itself when, in the 2016 election, ALP leader Bill Shorten took a plan to scrap negative gearing to the people, promising to thereby save taxpayers over $30 billion in the next decade. In response, the real estate industry launched a multi-million dollar advertising campaign, directly contacting 15 million Australians to warn against the policy, suggesting it would create short-term “panic buying” and/or/then ? a panic sell-off of up to 30% of investment properties.
Just as Sabatier’s model would suggest, next, the success of the real estate-finance advocacy coalition in shaping which policies are considered or delegitimised, resting as it does on the (albeit diminishing and ageing) electoral majority of home-owners and investors, does not operate in a vacuum. It rests upon and reproducces the background of a much larger, now-decades-old hegemony of the kinds of “neoliberal” assumptions about government, markets, and society that Tiernan and Burke (2002) observed (as above). The changes in Australian home-ownership figures over the last three decades which we have been examining, that is to say, reflect a fundamental set of transformations in the basic ways Australians have been prompted to think about housing. Broadly speaking, houses have gone from being, if not a basic right, then conceived as dwellings and homes connoting stability, durability, and belonging ((Forrest 2015; 234) towards being seen, bought and sold as more or less liquid, dynamic assets—as the bearers of eventual sale value (especially allowing for the Howard-era capital gains discount), as potential tax-write-downs(through negative gearing), and as an “ATM” or source of “equity” to supplement other income and enable further investment. In economic conditions in which wages have stagnated in Australia, this “financialisation of housing”—its re-conception as a financial asset—has come to represent what some commentators have called “wealth-fare” or “asset-based welfare”: a key means of neoliberal governance, here as overseas. On the private side, households “increasingly drawing on housing wealth to fund consumption across the life course.” (Stebbing and Spies-Butcher 2016, 191) On the side of the state:
The growing number of home owners with appreciating assets to deploy … offers sic. a key policy means of reducing increases in public spending on welfare associated with demographic changes (Forrest 2015: 241).
To these “relatively stable factor” (figure 1) must be added, finally, the “wealth effect”, comprising economic flow-ons from households’ increasing asset-wealth, and making Australia’s larger economic wellbeing increasingly dependent upon the steepling prices of houses:
In short, households consume more, the wealthier they are (or feel) … If they experience an unexpected increase in wealth – say, as a result of an increase in their house values – they will need to save less than they otherwise would have … Current consumption rises accordingly… this increase in individual consumption boosts aggregate economic activity and employment. (Berry 2006: ii-iii)
However strong are the reasons for trying to stabilise and recalibrate housing prices against median incomes, all this amounts to saying, Australians’ overinflated housing market has become ‘too big to fail’. The short-to-medium term price the nation will have to pay for any such “correction” will be a profound economic downturn. It is at the same perhaps only such a shock that could change the “fundamental neoliberal sociocultural values” (figure 1), reevaluating houses as assets, that have underlain our real estate boom of the last decades. And in the present scenario, it is perhaps only such a fundamental change in core values, recalling houses’ primary use-values as residences and homes, that could lead to lasting change in this policy subsystem.
This paper has argued that Sabatier’s advocacy framework, amongst available theories of policy-making, best allows us to understand the patterns of action and inaction in the Australian housing policy subsystem since the mid-1990s. While the policy cycle heuristic can tell us little about these patterns, the “garbage can” model prevents us from seeing the “non-trivial level of coordinated activity over time” (Sabatier 1988: 139) of the real estate and financial lobbyists in this subsystem. This coordination was most openly evident in the 2016 real-estate industry advertising campaign opposing the ALPs plan to shelve negative gearing. But this advocacy coalition operates against the background of fundamental changes in Australian social values and understandings of “the Australian dream” that have come with bipartisan, neoliberal hegemony since the 1980s. It can by now also call upon the support of large numbers of owner-occupiers and landlord investors, and legitimately point to grave short- to medium-term economic costs of implementing any suite of policies to effectively dampen demand and lower housing prices in this country. The home-ownership prognosis for increasing numbers of younger Australians at this time, then, must remain bleak.
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Appendix One: the policy subcommunity in Australia (from Tiernan & Milligan 2011, 399-400)