When the south London suburb of Brixton was developed during a Victorian property boom, it was resolutely middle class. Later, around the turn of the century, and again following the Blitz, a demographic shift took place when the large and expensive homes near Acre Lane and Electric Avenue built for doctors, accountants and business owners were converted into boarding houses. Brixton became, at various turns, bohemian, impoverished, and known for ethnic tension. In 1981, the first of several riots with which the neighbourhood became synonymous broke out. Twelve years ago, a policeman called the Brixton market space “a 24-hour crack supermarket”.
Today, the doctors and accountants are back, joined by bankers and a very different type of market. Last month, a bar named Champagne + Fromage opened in Brixton Village (the covered market formerly known as the Granville Arcade), a bistro serving £12 glasses of Brut, artisanal cheeses and exotic foods such as snail raclette.
It is the latest and most extreme example of an accelerated transformation that has left property prices soaring and long-time residents lamenting that a unique neighbourhood is being lost along the way. In the past year, property prices have shot up by 35 per cent, according to local agent Kinleigh, Folkard & Hayward (KFH). Another agent, Savills, says the Brixton area is one of only three London locations south of the Thames where prices have risen 30 per cent or more in the five years up to 2012.
Developers and others in the industry have caught on. But they have not always been welcomed. When estate agency Foxtons opened its first Brixton branch in March this year, employees arrived at work to find “Yuppies out” spray painted on the window. Brixton Square, the new Barratt Homes development on Coldharbour Lane, prompted local fury by altering its social housing provision, although it also sold out rapidly, suggesting buyers and tenants do not have the same misgivings.
According to Gary Patrick, the regional sales director for Barratt London, 80 per cent of the development was sold to owner-occupiers, and 20 per cent to investors, all from the UK. “While buyers will consider locations with lower house prices, they still want to buy in an area with potential for capital growth. Brixton for us was one of these locations,” he says. However, investors hoping to benefit in the short term from bargain properties and high yields may have missed the boat. With yields hovering at about the five per cent mark – more or less the same as in Clapham – it is profitable but not excessively so.
Katherine Wells, sales manager at the local KFH branch, says: “Brixton was always Clapham’s poor neighbour. We’ve always sold it like that – as a good-value destination. But this year people purposefully want to live in Brixton, not in Clapham. It’s not really the place to find a bargain these days.” Typical buyers just a few years ago were teachers and journalists, she adds. “Now a huge proportion of our buyers are parents buying for their children, in their 20s and even 30s. We do see some bankers now too. Many of the people who bought flats here before the credit crunch when it was still quite grungy cannot afford to trade up here. They are all buying houses in Streatham and West Dulwich, or Forest Hill. You can’t get a house here for less than £750,000 now really, or a flat for less than £300,000.”
KFH is selling a pretty but small one-bedroom flat on Branksome Road with a guide price of £250,000, but this is very rare and is likely to sell for about £300,000, says Wells. Some flats also sell or rent to students attending nearby Camberwell College of Arts and the Denmark Hill campus for King’s College London.
The price of family homes has not increased quite so steeply but they still don’t come cheap. The most expensive houses tend to be on the fringes of Brixton, towards Clapham, Tulse Hill and Herne Hill, such as the double-fronted, five-bedroom house on Palace Road near Tulse Hill station on sale for £1.19m with KFH. One of the most expensive homes on sale is a semi-detached Georgian house with five bedrooms at the northern end of Brixton, towards Stockwell, being marketed by Dexters for £1.68m.
So what has changed in the past few years? Regeneration schemes led by Lambeth council have played a large role (the redevelopment of the previously shabby central square in front of the Ritzy Cinema for instance), and of course, the renaissance of Brixton Village. In 2009, stalls were leased for free for three months to encourage new businesses to move in.
Even today, most of the stalls and restaurants are independents such as Brixton Cornercopia and Casa Morita, making the space an appealing destination for London’s foodies. However, chains are itching for a slice of the market.
Transport and good schools are key to the area’s success. Several local schools are deemed “outstanding” by the schools watchdog Ofsted, and the Tube from Brixton to Victoria in central London takes just eight minutes.
The range of the property itself is a big draw too. By Elm Park, pretty white stucco-fronted Georgian town houses are available from £600,000 and on tree-lined Josephine Avenue, three-storey houses with large gardens sell from £750,000, although so many of them have been split into flats that buyers are more likely to find two-bedroom flats here, from £400,000.
“Compared with Clapham . . . the property of Brixton feels diverse,” says Wells. “It’s not row upon row of exactly the same house. It perpetuates that feeling that you are buying into something edgy.”
● In June 2010, 140 crimes were reported in the Brixton Hill area, according to UK Crime Stats. In June this year there were 184
● There are three primary schools and four secondary schools judged to be “outstanding” by Ofsted in the area
● Nearby Brockwell Park has a lido, bowling green and miniature railway
● Underground trains from Brixton to Victoria take eight minutes. There are also two train stations: Brixton and Loughborough Junction
What you can buy for . . .
£400,000 Two-bedroom period flat
£1m A large four- or five-bedroom terrace close to the Tube station
£2m A six- or seven-bedroom semi-detached villa on the Herne Hill side