Now in his late 80s and living with his wife in a stone cottage on Exmoor, Rev John Asbridge recalls our early days. In 1966 he became vicar of St Stephen's Church in Shepherds Bush, a vibrant multicultural parish. Race riots in neighbouring Notting Hill were a recent memory, while the chronic shortage of decent housing meant slum landlords enjoyed a free rein.
That same year, Ken Loach's influential social documentary 'Cathy Come Home' was screened by the BBC and watched by a quarter of the population. It made the cruel realities of homelessness a counterpoint to London's swinging '60s image.
Rev Asbridge said: “I was appalled by what I saw. It was the time of the slum landlord Rachman. People were being compelled to pay high rents or were being kicked out. Families of four or five lived in one room with a kitchen on the landing and a shared bathroom. I had the advantage that as a priest, I was allowed in. The last thing that people wanted was a blessing. They wanted a proper home.”
He called together people, drawn from the parish and contacts, to "acquire and administer property for letting to needy families". This included his curate Wilfred Wood, who went on to become Britain’s first black bishop. Other members included the stage and screen actress Elizabeth Barnes (pictured right) - after whom we named our sheltered accommodation
Early financing was a mixture of loans and donations, both private (Rev Asbridge recalls £500 being posted through the vicarage door) and from organisations like the newly formed homeless charity Shelter. In a rising market, properties were snapped up quickly. It took the fledgling committee a year to buy its first; a handsome, dilapidated four-storey building at 220 Hammersmith Grove (pictured below right).
He said: “We paid £10,000 to buy it and convert it into four flats. Once we had our first home there was a real difference in the committee. I got permission from the church council to use the vestry as an office and that’s where we would see people; they were knocking on the door to get on the list. For the first couple of years we were run entirely by volunteers. That included collecting the rent."
Rev Asbridge went on to run the association for 20 years, although a long-term future in Shepherds Bush was never the plan. Writing in 1972, Rev Asbridge said: "We cannot hope to rehouse more than a fraction of those who apply, though in almost every case there is an urgent need for help. Many of the people who come to us are weary of a fruitless search for accommodation with security of tenure and we are often faced with a family breakdown, caused in part at least by bad housing, in overcrowded conditions.”
We continued to buy and renovate run-down properties. Whenever possible, we would take on sitting tenants so they could remain in the community. The 1976 annual report noted that people often had to move away from the area in order to get a better home. “Frequently this leads to a loss of a sense of community in the new area and deep loneliness often becomes a significant factor in the lives of those who move there. Unfortunately this is sometimes inevitable but wherever possible the association endeavours to avoid such a state of affairs arising.”
The 1974 Housing Act created grants for social housing. It meant we could build homes, giving greater scope to create the family homes so badly needed. Our largest early development was Clifford Haigh House (named after the treasurer): 40 flats built on land adjoining St Clements Church on Fulham Palace Road. The opportunity to buy church land (land for development was a scarce and expensive commodity) shaped the association. Most major building projects until the 1980s were on church land.
We also addressed tenant wellbeing. A welfare sub-committee, chaired by Elizabeth Barnes and Wilfred Wood, offered services such as budgeting (rising fuel bills were a concern even then along with ‘saving’ tenants from heavy hire purchase commitments). And, in one of many examples of how our current work has its roots in our earliest days, a small enterprise collecting and redistributing furniture was run from a large property in Barrowgate Road, Chiswick. This is now offered by our current re-use service, Furnish.
From the earliest years, providing homes for people who worked in the area but couldn’t afford to rent was a priority. Setting up a cooperative with West London Parent Teachers’ Housing Association is just one example of providing homes for key workers.
In early 1980s, we offered shared ownership for the first time. It now accounts for almost one in four of our homes. Another radical move was inviting tenant representatives onto the management committee: still in place today with Resident Voice
By 1987 the association had grown to 50 staff and 2400 homes. The following year, after 20 years at the helm, Rev Asbridge retired to become president. In 2017, we have over 5000 homes and have won national and international awards
for our homes and services.
Looking back, Rev Asbridge said:
“When I think of housing associations, I think they fulfilled the dreams of people.”