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Housing Laws in Istanbul: Safety First?

(The audio slideshow "Istanbul Housing in Transition: From Horizontal to Vertical" includes interviews with Süleyman Şahin, a member of the Gaziosmanpaşa Housing Rights Council, Cihan Baysal, a housing rights activist, and Özgür Bingöl, professor at Mimar Sinan University of Fine Arts. They discuss various forms of housing in Istanbul—"the gecekondu," the Turkish name for informal squatter houses that are built by the people who live in them, and the apartment towers that are replacing the low-rise illegal homes of the urban poor.)

Istanbul’s metropolitan area extends into a seemingly endless city. Such a sprawl demands that development be fast and continuous. This leads to constant construction throughout the city, adding noise and some amount of chaos to many streets. With land values at a premium, all land, both developed and otherwise, is precious. In an attempt to maximize land use, the government intervenes mainly through the introduction of new laws.

Two laws in particular are notoriously disputed due to the extent of their reach: Law 5366 and Law 6306.

The first, Law 5366, or the "Usage of Timeworn Historical and Cultural Real Property with Restoration and Protection" (as translated by the Turkish Chamber of Architects), was originally intended to do what its title suggests: help restore the selected dilapidated historic areas of Istanbul.

Two specific areas affected by this law are the neighborhoods of Tarlabaşı and Sulukule. Both have received negative press due to implementation of the law. The reasons for this are threefold:

1. Powers for expropriation are given to local authorities. Although this could be a good step with proper oversight and application of the law, this does not seem to be the case.
2. Local authorities have the power to declare a historical area without consent of the property owner.
3. Local authorities are allowed to use urgent expropriation of the historical areas for renewal projects.

As a result of this law, it was possible to acquire and complete the process of renewal in the two neighborhoods of Tarlabaşı and Sulukule. Evictions were issued, people left or were forced out, and the projects began.

Today's Sulukule can be seen in its “renovated and restored” form, while Tarlabaşı is left to fall into ruin by the ravishes of time and neglect. Court rulings released on July 18, 2014, have halted the project.

Law 6306, passed in 2012, is the most recently contested law. When asked about the law, Can Atalay, a lawyer for the Chamber of Architects, said, "It is not like a law, it is like Godzilla." Law 6306 is known as Afet Yasasi, the Law on the Transformation of Areas Under Disaster Risk.

Particularly affected by this second law are the areas of Gaziosmanpaşa and Sultangazi, both of which have already experienced the reach of the law. Large areas have been declared risky and selected for demolition.

Local municipalities choose locations they believe could be a risk and send on the information to the government. These reports are then approved based on a study conducted on the safety of each area—the conclusions of which have been subject to criticism.

Süleyman Şahin, a member of the Gaziosmanpaşa Housing Rights Council, pointed out the risky versus non-risky areas in a single district. Walking down the road with him, one sees that both the left side and right side of the street look exactly the same. In this case the buildings belonged to the same company and were almost identical, yet under the new law the street is a dividing line that arbitrarily separates buildings that will be preserved and those that will be destroyed.

Such confusion leaves the residents uninformed about the state of their house. Are their houses safe? Will their homes be assessed as risky and then demolished? According to the law as explained by Şahin, the people "only have 30 days to go to court." If no agreement has been met after the 30-day period, according to law 6306, "the property may be urgently expropriated."

To make the whole issue more confusing, Şahin said, "the risky area is dancing round the area.” For the sake of understanding this dancing border, Süleyman created a map that showed all the risky areas of Gaziosmanpaşa. He explained that by law the locations declared risky are required to be released to the public, but this information is not put in layman's terms. Rather, the information is released in an encrypted form giving locations in non-standard coordinates. Why this is done is a mystery, as residents need to know the risk status of their houses in order to plead their issue in court.

Not too far from Sultangazi, another risky area can be found. This area is green, filled with gardens, and 100 percent legally built. Here, due to higher levels of education and a more level social standing, residents, such as Şenol Arslan, who are under threat of development have formed a coalition to have their "risky area" status repealed.

As a community, they are challenging the decision in court and have come up with their own design solution to protect their homes. Instead of proposing a large building project and displacing all residents, a community plan to add two floors to all of the existing buildings has been created. This alternative would not require the eviction of current tenants and would cost significantly less money.

The Sultangazi community is still fighting its risk assessment for earthquakes. Small details explain why this area has a street dividing an earthquake risk area from a non-risk area; one side of the street is residential while the other houses a branch of IGDAŞ natural gas company.

An almost perpetual state of dissatisfaction and confusion ensues as people question and fight the newly created laws.