Housing need in Australia has typically been measured using a normative measure of the percentage of income spent on housing costs. However, this normative measure has tended not to correspond with the level of need as measured by the applications for housing assistance. This article reports on a research project commissioned by the Queensland Department of Housing in 2001, examining how low income private renters view their housing situation, with a particular focus on affordability. The Department wanted to better understand the reasons for why people apply for assistance, and how helpful normative affordability analyses are in describing and finding responses to housing need. The findings challenge the conventional wisdoms, dominant discourses and research standards which are commonly used and applied about affordability and housing need. In particular, the research raises serious questions about relying on quantitative analysis alone to appreciate the complexity of housing needs and the potential demand for assistance.