Urban transformation project leaves Istanbul residents with string of questions, uncertain future
Istanbul’s densely populated Tozkoparan neighbourhood is not a hotspot of the megacity by any stretch of the imagination. The lower middle class neighbourhood in the Güngören district of the European side is home to roughly 19,000 people packed into tightly spaced apartments.
But Tozkoparan has made headlines in recent years over an urban transformation project, which residents say is being carried out in a manner that completely ignores them, leaving their concerns and questions unanswered, while threatening to leave them homeless for an extended period of time.
On the morning of Dec. 23, some residents of the neighbourhood woke to a written notice hanging on their doors, giving them 30 days to evacuate their residence or face cuts to their electricity, water and natural gas.
While Tozkoparan’s population is not opposed to the project, they say they are stuck between a rock and a hard place as they await an effective shut down of the area.
Serkan Çakmaklı, attorney for Tozkoparan's residents, maintains that the quick evacuation and destruction of buildings brings with it a string of problems for the tens and thousands of residents.
The Ministry of Environment and Urbanisation-led efforts to transform the neighbourhood are guided by Turkish Law No.6306.
The legislation looks to enhance old structures while enabling property owners to have their homes rebuilt by cost-efficient methods in addition to other means of support, such as rent allowance, credit facilities, moving allowances, tax and fee immunities, among others.
Tozkoparan has been designated as a category 6A area – that is to say, containing dwellings that have a very high risk of collapse – a category that has allowed the government to exert an aggressive policy in the neighbourhood, Çakmaklı explains.
"Article 6A actually pertains to areas that require immediate destruction, which are under the risk of collapsing,” the lawyer explains. "We do not find it right that a neighbourhood such as Tozkoparan, which is not at high risk, is designated as 6A."
Moreover, Çakmaklı explains, there is a requirement for a vote of two-thirds of the population concerning how to deal with risky areas – a prerequisite that has been scrapped due to the 6A designation.
“With the 6A designation, the state is saying that it will transfer the title deeds to itself, decide on all projects and apartments by itself and only offer residents anything once all the work is complete,’’ he said. This is an effective ultimatum, which leaves residents with no right to voice their preferences or concerns, he said.
The latest notice by the government delivered to residents in December calls for 5,000 people to evacuate their properties by Jan. 22, the lawyer said. No appeal is allowed, granting the government the right to forcefully remove people if they fail to comply.
“What all residents want is some understanding as it is impossible for thousands of people to move in the middle of the winter and a pandemic,’’ Çakmaklı explains.
Turkey’s Environment and Urbanisation Minister Murat Kurum has announced that 1,500 new homes are being prepared for Tozkoparan's residents and the government would provide residents with 1,500 liras in rent assistance and 3,000 liras for moving expenses.
Şükran Yıldız, who has lived in Tozkoparan for 35 years, maintains residents are being “sold a dream,’’ with no formal legal initiative or agreement form in sight for the transition.
“We have no plans to evacuate on the 22nd of this month,’’ she explains, “not until there is a legal procedure put into effect.’’
Another resident, Fatma, supports the government initiative and has submitted all documents requested of her.
“We did everything they asked us for… we are looking for a house at the moment and if we find one, we will move. I don’t like that the neighbourhood residents have hired a lawyer and are looking to stop all this,’’ she explains.
For pensioner İlyas Demir, a long time resident of Tozkoparan, the problem is not the project, but the way it is being carried out.
“They are exerting pressure on us in a bid to evacuate us from the neighbourhood,’’ he explains, while wondering why the alternate government built housing is not being built in the neighbourhood’s empty plots.
“They are asking from us 180.000 liras for 95 square metre and 220.000 liras for 120 square metres over a period of 15 years for the new residences,’’ he notes, adding that they still don’t know how many square metres their new homes will be as no official documents have been presented to them.
“There is not a project or scale model of the structures (presented to us). So where exactly are we going after we leave our homes?’’ he asked.
Long time resident Aygül Günay echoes Demir’s thoughts.
“We have no place to go. Nor do we have a (government) interlocutor before us,’’ Günay says. “We have been living in this neighbourhood for years. They are asking for almost 5,000 to evacuate their homes. And we have not even been presented with a proper agreement.’’