In a time of adversity in the 1970s, with the threat of encroaching commercial developers, and against all the odds, a group of determined residents successfully protected and preserved a group of homes for residential use, thereby allowing the local community to survive and prosper. Soho Housing Association was set up to provide homes for people who live and work in Soho. This quickly spread to other nearby areas. Determined residents succeeded in transferring over a hundred homes into social ownership. This mechanism unlocked funds for their improvement and began the process which allowed the community to survive and prosper in decent housing.
By the early 1970s Soho’s residential population was at an all-time low of between 3,000 and 3,500. The accommodation was in general very poor with over 30% of properties lacking bathrooms and a higher percentage sharing facilities. Rents were low and overcrowding was endemic. Any family wishing to improve their circumstances was obliged to move out of the area as in particular Westminster City Council had built, and was only prepared to build, one bedroom flats.
Soho Family Housing Association as it was then known was formed to particularly address this problem. A small group of residents believed that community cohesion was critical for the long term future of Soho and the 1974 Housing Act provided the opportunity. Government funding was to be channelled into Housing Associations rather than local authorities.
This group had already registered a Co-ownership Housing Association but it became evident that funding would not be available for this, whereas by converting to a fair rent association funds would be forthcoming. Soho Family Housing Association was born, with an entirely voluntary committee and workforce for the first year. By early 1977 funding had been agreed for 35–40 Great Pulteney Street, 1–5 Bridle Lane and 1–12 Royalty Mansions. Planning permission was in place for St James’ Residences and Archer Street Chambers, and in principle funding in place.
All property acquired by the association had previously been in private hands, thus the existing tenants faced becoming tenants of a social landlord and higher rents with no choice. The refurbishment of these properties was extremely complex because all were partially tenanted. Delicate and sensitive negotiations were required to persuade tenants that the trouble of a temporary move was worth it to either return to a fully self-contained and partially centrally heated flat or a new one, both at a higher rent. The Association considered that eviction was not an option and held many meetings with tenants to ensure their agreement. Where possible tenants were involved with choice of fittings, finishes and colour choices. Flats were also tailored to disabilities. Central heating was confined to living areas, although pipe tails were put in the bedrooms in hope of future up-grading. A whole meeting was convened at the Department of Environment, Marsham Street to argue for the desirability of providing entry phones because of the sex industry.
Great Pulteney Street and Royalty Mansions proceeded remarkably swiftly, St James Residences actually took 10 years from first inception to completion. Since then we have continued to grow, extending our areas of operation to other parts of central London such as Covent Garden, Fitzrovia, Bloomsbury and Pimlico. We remain financially robust and now own or lease over 800 homes.