The housing association is rooted in citizen activism to stop demolition in the 1970s. Now the night-time economy is residents’ number one concern. We met CEO Barbara Brownlee and finance director Jane Harrison to find out why.
Barbara Brownlee knows that a development pipeline of 30 properties over five years might be considered small, but she believes it is “beautifully formed.”
As former Executive Director for Growth, Planning and Housing at Westminster City Council, Barbara has managed stock and developments on a larger scale. But since arriving at Soho Housing two years ago, she has embraced the “small is beautiful” ethos.
Covid led to a concerted effort to engage with tenants
Soho Housing has 750 properties in the heart of London, mostly in Soho and Covent Garden, supported by four housing officers.
“Covid was difficult for staff and residents but since 2021 we’ve put huge amounts of energy into improving our relationship with our tenants,” says Barbara.
“We have a programme of customer insight visits which will see us visit every home we own. We should know our residents very well, given our size and the geography of our homes. There’s really no excuse not to!”
Barbara already knew Future of London as Westminster is an active member. However, it was our current focus on community insight and resident voice that convinced her that Soho Housing should join. We meet with Finance Director, Jane Harrison, who is keen to learn more.
A housing association founded by housing campaigners
Soho Housing is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year and has its roots in resident activism.
In 1973, Soho residents were among many people in central London who protested about the implementation of the “London Plan”. It would have led to demolition in the city centre including Covent Garden, Piccadilly and Soho with many households displaced.
Mass protests saw off the plan and some of those who had been energised by campaigning decided to settle in the area and improve housing conditions by setting up what is now Soho Housing.
The focus on providing homes for people living on low incomes in expensive central London continues at Soho Housing.
“We want to continue to provide good quality affordable housing for people who work in the centre of the city,” says Barbara. “There are lots of people bringing up their families here and lots of low-paid workers.”
The night-time economy is the upside and downside of Soho life
For the housing association’s tenants now, the night-time economy is the number one concern.
“We want to address the relentless increase in late-night, licensed premises in a very tiny area. We are planning a campaign to remind people that residents live here too. Soho has always been a place to go out, party, listen to live music and enjoy a late night and we really support that.
“But the recent increase in 4am licenses granted to very large premises has altered the balance between business and residents. It’s this balance which underlies the uniqueness of Soho and which we would like to preserve.”
Developing housing on small budgets in tight spaces
The costs and access constraints in Soho in particular make development expensive, she adds. Even when developing on its own land, Soho Housing needs about £350,000 of grant to make a social rent home viable and these grant levels are simply not available.
Finding suitable sites and overcoming these challenges requires a lot “maximising of space” so the volume of our development pipeline will always remain low, explains Barbara.
To fund investment in improvements to existing stock and their pipeline, Soho Housing exploits the commercial opportunities of a central London location.
As well as housing stock, the housing association also owns about 40 commercial premises split between offices and retail. Many of the business premises have housing stock above, often comprising both affordable and market rate rental properties.
“We have many more residential tenants, but our commercial properties are really important,” says Barbara. “And because a lot of our commercial properties have residential above, we are very considerate about who we let to.”
Jane points out that Soho Housing’s office is in just such a building in Hanway Street behind the east end of Oxford Street.
“This is very typical of our stock,” she says. “We have the ground floor, then we have the affordable above that and then the market rent at the top, so we have real mixed tenure.”
Soho Housing and resident voices
With so much current focus on reviving Oxford Street and Marks & Spencer’s well-publicised battle to rebuild its flagship store, could we see a shift towards residential in central London?
Barbara isn’t sure, given the importance of offices, shops and the night-time economy to London’s West End.
“I don’t know if you can or even want to dramatically alter the balance between residential and business premises,” she says. “But I do think the residents voice will grow even if the numbers don’t.”