Soho Housing might be a small West London housing association, managing fewer than 1,000 homes, but it’s ambitions are big. Liam Turner caught up with CEO Barbara Brownlee to talk through the organisation’s new five-year strategy, the importance of quality over quantity, and the impact of the pandemic on people’s housing needs
Could you provide an overview of your new five-year development strategy?
It’s proportionate for the size of our organisation – we’re relatively small. We’ve got 800 homes, 40 commercial units, and a dozen market-rent homes. However, I think that the strategy is incredibly important because it’s about building for a particular group of people right in the heart of London.
That’s our key and our overriding message, that we are building for people who work and live in Soho. They might currently live in a tiny or poor-quality home but need to work in Soho. And so, that’s what we’re doing.
How many homes do you plan to deliver?
We are saying at least 30 over five years. We’ve got two-thirds of that already on our books…so we’re being very cautious. But market conditions are difficult, and we are being conservative about our numbers. We are in a place, however, where we can say every single one of them will count.
What do you think is the best-case scenario in terms of the number of homes you could deliver over the five-year period?
The top end of our objective is to deliver 50 new homes, but obviously that is not something that we can absolutely guarantee.
How did the strategy come about?
Soho has not developed for a little while, although it has been wanting to. If you’ve ever lived in London and had seen what it was like during the pandemic, it would have shocked you to your core. It was like a moonscape. You could walk for hours without seeing anybody.
What it did was show really clearly that central London, unlike other capital cities in Europe, is no longer lived in by many people. It’s a place of office blocks, some absentee owners, but there are not lots and lots of people just living in the centre of London anymore.
“If you’ve ever lived in London and had seen what it was like during the pandemic, it would have shocked you to your core – it was like a moonscape”
It was our thinking about that, because that’s what we represent, people who live in the heart of Soho. That’s where we come from, and that’s what’s in our DNA. In that way, post-COVID, we made a really renewed vow that we will build for people to live in affordable housing right in the middle.
What kind of tenure will you be providing?
They are a mix of Section 106 and our own developments, and we are working with partners [to deliver them].
If you’re building in the heart of Westminster, you are really constrained by how you can build, because we’re often refurbishing existing buildings or building around existing buildings.
Is there a particular theme that links the new homes?
We will prioritise fabric first, solutions to low-carbon emissions, and cheaper energy bills. We will absolutely do that in everything.
There will also be incredibly good space standards. The homes in our Greek Street development are enormous and beautiful, with high ceilings and big windows with shutters – they’re lovely. But they are absolutely fitting for Greek Street. If you built them around the corner somewhere else they might be different.
There will always be high-quality standards, and we will always prioritise energy efficiency, fabric solutions. We will always prioritise outdoor space for people; our homes will always have balconies.
How are you funding the new homes?
Unlike private landlords with substantial assets and these great estates, RPs [registered providers] have not had the opportunity thus far really to think about active asset management – i.e. losing poorly performing units that are unpopular or that cost enormous amounts of money or that will never get to the right carbon standards and replacing them with better units.
Now, the Greek Street units, we’ve got eight incredibly high-quality large two-bed units, with really good energy ratings. And we are financing those eight by selling between three and four units over the next couple of years.
So, our strategy is a mix of borrowing, sales, renovating our own assets, and grants.
So, you’ll be selling off some of your existing assets to create more?
You are right in thinking that. Again, very small numbers. A couple here to build six somewhere else. So, we’ll always be looking to increase our numbers, but we will also be absolutely looking to increase the quality of our portfolio.
One of your aims is to grow your commercial portfolio as well, is that right?
It is indeed. Soho has always been a really interesting mix of residential and commercial. We’ve never been just a purely residential housing association.
And that’s partly because of where we are. The core of Soho is built on the relationships between the businesses and the residents – it’s almost why it works. When that relationship is broken, it all gets a bit harder for people. It’s much better if that link is maintained.
We also have investment property. We have market flats in our commercial portfolio, which is an investment portfolio. We use it to fund the residential.
The development strategy is about £10.5m, which is made up of about £3m borrowing, £4m disposals, £3m from internal subsidy from our investment portfolio, and about half a million of grant.
What’s the demographic of the people who live in your properties?
Soho Housing Association came out of protests against the development of a Piccadilly site, which was going to be completely knocked down and rebuilt. A huge amount of protest happened about that, and it spread to Soho, which was always about keeping big developers out and keeping original buildings standing, and maintaining fair-rented flats for the original residential population.
From that, Soho Housing Association was developed. And those people, those founding members, who were young at that point and worked in Soho and lived and breathed Soho, some of them are still living there.
Because of this, our demographic has aged slightly, as we’ve been going for 50 years. The people who are passionate about Soho tend to remain passionate about Soho. They don’t want to move to the suburbs. People have brought up their kids in Soho, have spent their whole working lives in our flats in Soho, and are now retired and still there.
So, our current demographic is not young, but I think for our new flats, in our development strategy, I think they will be.
Why do you think a large proportion of your tenants have remained in Soho?
To want to stay and live in Soho, when you’re a young person, and to be really passionate about fighting development, you have to be into a few things. You have to be into architecture and preserving good buildings; you have to want to live in a city centre and in a neighbourhood that is made up of residential businesses along with shops and retail.
So, by habit, the people who want that naturally carry on wanting it. It’s where they started and it’s where they end up. You don’t suddenly want to retire to a bungalow by the seaside.
Did you engage with tenants much in the formulation of the strategy?
It started before I got here, and I’ve been working on it with the team since. We have a residents’ panel called ReCAP. But to be fair, it’s very high level – we’ve had some involvement of residents, we’ve had involvement with the board, which includes residents. Each project now will include resident input.
“We’re not being hugely ambitious with numbers – we’re being hugely ambitious in standards and area”
The Sandringham project is a really good example of that. We are determined to get the views of at least 50% of that block before we move forward with the decision, and we want the residents involved in choosing the contractor. We want to know what will make a difference to them living in the block, not just what we as landlords need to do physically to the block.
Do you think that’s why Soho Housing has such a high tenant-retention rate, because you have such a high level of engagement with them?
Soho Housing used to have a brilliant relationship with its residents. I think COVID broke it. For almost two years, I think residents would say it was very hard to get hold of us in person. Like a lot of people, we disappeared onto the ends of phones and screens, and we have absolutely supercharged putting that right in the last six months.
So, we are currently working on rebuilding that relationship with our residents and making it as good as it used to be, if not better.
Will you be able to achieve all of your aims within the five-year timeframe?
Yes, with partners. We’ll work with the borough, we’ll work with residents in Camden. We will not do it on our own, we will absolutely do it with other people.
I think we’ve been modest in our first strategy, and I think we will achieve the numbers. We certainly won’t drop our quality standards. I say that, yet lobbying conditions have never ever been as tough, and everybody who is building in housing at the moment knows that. There are contractors going bust, and supply chain inflation is beyond belief.
So, maybe I’m being very optimistic, but we have been really humble I think in aiming for 30 new homes. We’re not being hugely ambitious with numbers. We’re being hugely ambitious in standards and location. That’s where our ambition lies.
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