Istanbul residents battle for their homes amid regeneration plans

Okmeydani locals fear authorities are using quake threat as an excuse to drive them out

Mehmet Ali outside his three-room home in Okmeydani district, Istanbul. Photograph: Stephen Starr

Mehmet Ali outside his three-room home in Okmeydani district, Istanbul. Photograph: Stephen Starr

 

Mehmet Ali does not own the land on which his shanty house sits in Istanbul’s Okmeydani district. When he arrived here 45 years ago from Ankara in search of a better paying job, the area was untouched ground covered by mulberry tree groves.

Today, Ali’s single-storey, three-room house on Piyalepasa street is home to three generations of his family – six people in all. “The house was built in 1973 by my friends and I – in a single day,” he says from outside his creaking front door.

Residents of Okmeydani, a centrally-located district built by migrant squatters in the 1960s and ’70s, now fear the local municipal authority, run by Turkey’s governing AK Party, is attempting to drive them from their homes.

More than 5,600 buildings across 1.6sq km have been designated as sitting inside an earthquake “risk zone”, and are expected to be demolished soon and replaced by new structures as part of a multi-billion-dollar urban transformation project.

The opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) appealed against the demolition plan when it was first announced in 2014, but the state council of ministers approved the regeneration project two years later.

Ali, a pensioner, says he can’t afford the 90,000 lira (€18,000) he must pay the municipality to acquire the title deed that would see him officially take ownership of the property. The deed would allow him to have his home rebuilt as part of the regeneration project.

“Any day something can happen,” he says. “If they [the municipality] insist on getting the money, I’m in trouble. Maybe they will come and say: ‘You leave.’”

Experts have long warned that a major earthquake is likely to strike the Marmara Region, which sits on the North Anatolian Fault and includes Istanbul. Up to 600,000 structures and homes across the city are at risk of significant damage in such an event, according to parliamentary reports. A 7.6-magnitude earthquake that struck 70km east of the city in 1999 killed more than 17,000 people and left half a million homeless.

Okmeydani’s central location makes it a valuable area for development, which locals believe is the real reason for the regeneration plans

Okmeydani, however, is not thought to be particularly vulnerable in the event of an earthquake.“Okmeydani’s earthquake-proof solid rocks are very rare earth structures. It is among the places [likely] to be least affected by the earthquake in Istanbul,” says Prof Ovgun Ahmet Ercan, an expert geophysicist. “However, its low building quality will affect the destruction rate.”

That their district is safer than most others in Istanbul due to its stable underground rockhead is not lost on Okmeydani residents, who know that many of the city’s outlying suburbs have been constructed on reclaimed, sandy soil.

Okmeydani’s central location makes it a valuable area for development, which locals believe is the real reason for the regeneration plans. Rents in Okmeydani are as little as half the market rate in surrounding, more modernised districts.

And areas such as Tarlabasi, directly east of Okmeydani, have already undergone major redevelopment that saw residents removed and rehoused in the city’s fringes, 50km away.

Politically sensitive

Working-class Okmeydani is also sensitive for political reasons. The district is home to leftists, Kurds, Shia Alevis and others who have been sidelined or directly targeted by the state. Graffiti depicting the initials of banned Marxist terrorist groups responsible for killing police officers and judges litter its streets.

Clashes between locals and riot police have erupted intermittently in recent years, causing several deaths, including that of 15-year-old Berkin Elvan, who was hit by a police gas canister during the Gezi Park unrest in 2013.

The €8 billion urban renewal project that includes Okmeydani’s earthquake “risk zone” neighbourhoods is part of AK Party mayor Ahmet Misbah Demircan’s plans to transform the district into “a special destination, a place like France’s Champs-Élysées”.

The designation of his neighbourhood as an earthquake “risk zone” means banks and lending institutions can’t sell mortgages or other property-related loans to residents, leaving him trapped

Construction is expected to begin this year, beginning in an area inhabited by people who moved there from the eastern province of Van after their homes were destroyed in an earthquake in 2011.

Ali’s home is one of thousands known as a gecekondu, or a building “put up overnight”. Over decades, streets have been paved, and electricity and water services added in the neighbourhood surrounding his home.

A series of government amnesties during the late 20th-century granted residents squatters’ rights to the homes they built and extended. The terms of the current regeneration project allow some locals to buy title deeds for the properties they now inhabit.

However, Ali, who says he is not oblivious to the threat of a major earthquake, believes the cost of acquiring the deed means he won’t be joining them. “If that bigger house falls, then we are finished,” he says, pointing to his left at a five-storey building looming over his own.

The designation of his neighbourhood as an earthquake “risk zone” means banks and lending institutions can’t sell mortgages or other property-related loans to residents, leaving him trapped.

“If we had the means we would build a safer house here, we would do more,” he says. “But we can’t.”

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