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From Home to Real Estate: Urban Redevelopment on the Axis of Speculation in Istanbul

[Fikirtepe. Photo by Duygu Parmaksizoglu.] [Fikirtepe. Photo by Duygu Parmaksizoglu.]

A major urban redevelopment project in Fikirtepe had been going on for two years by the time I began my fieldwork in March 2013. During that time, three construction islands out of sixty had been entirely demolished, and many people, including many renters, had left the place. The streets were becoming more desolate every day. Looking back at my notes from those days, the one thing I kept hearing from my informants was the anxieties caused by uncertainty. The excitement that came with the introduction of the redevelopment project, the great interest of construction companies, and the promising news appearing in the mainstream media regarding the future of the project were gradually fading away; an atmosphere of deadlock and uncertainty was settling in. A project that promised great profits was not of interest to anyone.[1] How did this happen? Why was the process blocked and what was the reason behind this shift from an atmosphere of enthusiasm to a period of deadlock?

At the time, when I asked these questions, people did not want to talk about it. I observed that they were refraining from criticizing the project in order to avoid being perceived as ungrateful. Most of them also argued that some circles were “jealous” of the fact that the project was going to yield great profits, and that was why they were doing everything to block it. However, as my research proceeded, I discovered that, aside from all the “jealousy” or “ungratefulness,” the real issue about Fikirtepe was the way in which the stakeholder scheme operated. The real thing that was going to demolish Fikirtepe would not be the demolishing of the neighborhood’s buildings, but this very stakeholder scheme, which was already causing economic depression and social disintegration. One shopkeeper, in his fifties, expressed his concern about the situation as follows: “Before the urban redevelopment project I had good relations with ninety-nine percent of my neighbors, but now there is a rift between us. Our neighborhood is disintegrating and people are becoming enemies. Nobody is interested, nobody knows what is going on here.” (28 March 2013)

Residents of Fikirtepe, who believed (or were made to believe) that they had won the lottery, have been looking in the wrong places for the reasons behind the undelivered promises, for a very long time. Sometimes they have accused their neighbors who refrained from signing contracts with the development companies; sometimes they have accused the Chamber of Turkish Engineers and Architects, who filed a lawsuit against the project; and sometimes they have accused imaginary lobbies, like the so-called “Bagdat Avenue” lobby.[2] The mindset of Fikirtepe residents has perceived the world only in terms of people who are part of the profit scheme and people who are not. Another worldview or perception beyond the profit scheme did not quite register.

In fact, not only Fikirtepe, but the entire country was captivated by this mindset, and has become integrated into the abstract world of speculative real-estate markets. There were no homes in Turkey anymore; everything was real estate and everywhere was investment. Most people did not even hesitate when they surrendered their life-long homes and neighborhoods to the gears of an asset production machine, operating under the banner of urban redevelopment. However, Law 6306, passed on 16 May 2012—also known as the “Disaster Law,” although it had nothing to do with disasters per se—which expedites and facilitates the asset production processes in favor the construction companies, has changed the “stakeholder” perception. The ones who used to be perceived as enemies in the past are now seen as friends. Fikirtepe is the very spot where we can feel the pulse of these changing perceptions; it is simultaneously the face and the bleeding wound of urban redevelopment in Turkey. What you will read below is the story of the impoverished, angry, and disappointed “lottery winners,” the other, unspoken reality of urban redevelopment.


[Fikirtepe. Photo by Duygu Parmaksizoglu.]

***

In January 2011, the mayor of Istanbul came to Onikiler Mosque in Fikirtepe and announced the urban redevelopment project. The neighborhood was declared a “special project zone” and was given a very high floor area ratio, which was by far the highest development right in Istanbul, or in Turkey more generally. The precondition for obtaining this 4.14 land area ratio was through combining small separate parcels and reaching a certain number of square meters. To meet these conditions, the planners divided the 321-acre area, inhabited by almost 100,000 people, into sixty construction “islands.” Each island contained 150-200 parcels, which roughly added up to 250-350 households. According to the plan, each island, as a single plot of land, would negotiate the terms of development contracts with various developers; at the end of the negotiation process, the unanimously chosen developer would demolish the entire housing stock (which mostly consists of informal houses) and build luxury high-rises. In the contracts, generally fifty-two to sixty percent of the new building stock would go to the residents, and the rest would go to the developers. While the high development rates promised high profits to the developers, they also promised to deliver two or three, or sometimes even more, apartment units in the new luxury buildings to the residents.

In the meantime, the media inflated the excitement, narrating the project as a “twist of fate” story, in which the main protagonist, the gecekondu dweller, turns into a property owner in a soon-to-be upper-middle-class neighborhood.[3] With this project, the government wanted to reverse negative public opinion regarding urban redevelopment projects; by turning residents into stakeholders, instead of victims of displacement, they wanted to change the bad image of the “urban redevelopment” banner. In fact, following the announcement of the project, many construction companies flooded the area, and many other low-income neighborhoods declared that they wanted similar projects in their areas. Residents of Fikirtepe, together with many other low-income neighborhoods, competed with great enthusiasm and hope to hand over their life-long homes and neighborhoods to the workings of this novel asset production mechanism.

Fikirtepe is different from other gecekondu neighborhoods of Istanbul, in that it was not founded on treasury or endowment lands. All the plots here are private properties with official title deeds. Even though ninety percent of the houses here are not licensed, everyone owns a land title. Since the property ownership structure is different from the other gecekondu regions, the government’s project is based on consent rather than coercion, and it operates on a stakeholder scheme instead of forced evictions and displacement. The only way to get people’s consent would be to create a profit mechanism through speculation that would promise very high potential returns. Hence, these profit mechanisms generated various “occupations,” ways to make easy money in Fikirtepe.

First of all, in order to carry out the negotiations with the developers more quickly and efficiently, every island created representative groups (usually consisting of eight to ten people). At first, the residents chose their own representatives in a very democratic fashion, but later, in many islands, some people “volunteered” for the job, even though they were not elected. Most of these people went to the developers and introduced themselves as island representatives and began to carry out the negotiations without the consent of their neighbors; in fact, some actually made decisions for their neighbors. A representative’s job, in its essence, should be to protect the interests of his neighbors and his island, but in time, many representatives changed sides and began to work for the companies. In fact, some of them quit their regular jobs and started working full-time in the offices opened by developers in the neighborhood. Some were accused of receiving benefits from the developers in exchange for forcing/convincing their neighbors to sign the contracts. In time, being an “island representative” became an occupation, a lucrative business in the neighborhood.

In many islands, the residents who could not trust their representatives for these reasons hesitated to sign the contracts. The ones who did sign did it either because their neighbors did, or because they felt themselves to be under tremendous social and economic pressure to sign. However, in general, the problem for people who refrained from signing was the issue of trust. Residents wanted to trust the development companies and wanted to make sure these companies were strong enough to undertake their full obligations. After all, their only property was their homes. However, neither the municipality nor the Ministry of Environment and Urbanization would inspect the companies who wanted to work here, nor would they establish criteria for the companies to undertake the project. In fact, one officer from the Ministry told me such acts would violate companies’ so-called “personal rights.” Under the circumstances, it became the residents’ obligation to do the research on the companies. Most residents, however, did not have the economic and educational strength to stand up against the companies’ team of lawyers. Their only power was to delay the signing of contracts, thereby assuming some control over the process.

 
[Fikirtepe. Photo by Duygu Parmaksizoglu.]

The companies showed their power over the process by either intimidating the residents, or by giving them hope. They would draw lots for non-existent projects and call in residents to inform them that they had won the terrace floor, presumably the unit with the highest value; they would then tell them that they should come and sign the contracts quickly if they did not want to lose the opportunity. Nourishing their hopes and dreams always yielded better results. People would make guesses about the rent money that they would earn in the future, or what they would do with the money once they sold their virtually non-existent new apartments. Just like dreaming about winning the lottery, people here would add, subtract, multiply, and divide a large sum of money that is in fact absent.

However, since the dreams were constantly overshadowed by trust issues, the process came to a halt. It became the government’s job to resolve the blockage. First of all, the project was taken out the hands of the local authority, the Istanbul Municipality, and brought under the control of the central government, through the Ministry of Environment and Urbanization. But the major blow came when the project was brought under the Disaster Law in May 2013. The law, while providing significant benefits to the companies (such as decreasing the percentage of value-added tax from eighteen to one), also changed the balance of power between the residents and the companies, in favor of the companies. From now on, the consequences of signing or not signing the contracts would go way beyond interpersonal fights, to “expropriation.”

Before the disaster law, when I talked about the issue of expropriation with the residents here, they would say: “We have official title deeds and deeds are sacred. They cannot do expropriation here.” However, the disaster law, while violating right to shelter on the one hand, also turns the title deed, the major symbolic representation of private property, into a piece of paper. When the conflicts during the negotiations became unbearable, the residents called for the government to step in and establish a buffer zone between themselves and the companies. However, once the government stepped in, it showed which side it was on by using the expropriation threat to benefit the companies. The expropriation issue is against the constitution in its essence, and the issue also has the potential to erode electoral support for the government (Fikirtepe is the only region in the Kadikoy district of Istanbul that heavily supports the current government; the rest of Kadikoy district is largely anti-government). So as an initial step, the Ministry wanted to establish a “reconciliation commission” to bring together the parties before the government. The commission, however, was not intended to function as a platform where the residents could voice their concerns and demands, but was planned as a setting to pressure residents for signing. In other words, the whole commission issue was a passive-aggressive attack by the government to intimidate the residents by making its power visible.

While all of this was happening, news regarding the financial difficulties of some of the development companies started coming in. One of the companies, which was the first to demolish one of the islands and also was the first to start the construction process, filed for bankruptcy adjournment. Another company, which evicted the residents about a year and a half ago, has not been paying rent compensation to the residents for almost a year. The worst part of it all was that these two development companies were two of the strongest out of the five companies involved, which were generally financially weak and inexperienced. The residents, who were stuck between increasingly growing issues of trust and the government’s expropriation threat, finally realized that those who they had perceived as enemies were not the real enemies. For example, they had thought that the Union of Architects, who opposed the project, were trying to impede the project because they were not given any benefits in this major profit scheme, or they would accuse some imaginary lobbies of working against the project in order to prevent the area from becoming “valuable.” However, in time, they came to the realization that the Union of Architects, together with other civil society organizations that were quite critical of the project, were standing somewhere beyond the profit/stakeholder scheme mindset.

The Union of Architects and many other civil society organizations justified their opposition on the grounds that this project goes against many urbanization principles: it would cause major ecological damage, and the existing infrastructure cannot meet the demands of a project that would quadruple the population in the area. If this unplanned and chaotic redevelopment scheme were to be completed, the result would not be a brand new, luxurious city center, but a soulless, disintegrated stack of concrete blocks. People who share this foresight have supported redevelopment models that would preserve and improve the social fabric and neighborhood life. Moreover, the economic indicators of 2014 showed that the demand for real estate was narrowing, and there was an increase in idle, empty investments all around the city; both indicators signaling a coming burst in the real estate bubble. Under the circumstances, the residents who had refrained from signing the contracts suddenly became the saviors of both the ones who had signed and the construction companies themselves. Even though the companies would still claim that the residents who did not sign the contracts were the reason for them not doing any work, in reality they were also scared of what was before them.

 
[Fikirtepe. Photo by Duygu Parmaksizoglu.]

One of the residents here once told me that he was not happy with this “lottery winner” banner: “Read the stories of the lottery winners; they all end in frustration and misery.” What the residents of Fikirtepe are going through today is indeed frustration and disappointment. Right now, in Fikirtepe, four to five islands have been completely demolished, and as many have been emptied. Around sixty to seventy percent of the buildings are still in place; however, the population has tremendously decreased. Displaced populations, including Syrian refugees, together with substance abusers and addicts, are now moving into the emptied homes. Every day, there are many incidents of bodily harm, fights, fires, and even murder. The situation is terrible, so much so that people refrain from sending their kids out in the evening; in fact, everyone avoids going out after dark. Until three or four years ago, Fikirtepe was an old neighborhood with rundown houses and limited infrastructure, but it was a place where people had good neighborly relations with one another. Today, the demolished streets of Fikirtepe could serve as film sets for war scenes; the neighborhood has been transformed into a site where there is fighting, murder, and theft on every corner. The disputes over contracts, the problems with some island representatives who “sold” their neighbors in exchange for receiving personal benefits from the companies, and the trust issues with the companies have all ruined the interpersonal relationships and created an environment where there is constant gossip and rumor that renders trust among people almost impossible.

The dreams of becoming rich have now turned into the need to protect what they have and to survive. Many shopkeepers and small manufacturers in the neighborhood are coming close to declaring bankruptcy, and many more with serious financial problems are selling bits and pieces of their parcels to third parties in exchange for immediate cash. For people who are working in irregular jobs with low wages, a “living” neighborhood is essential for survival. From child-care to preparing seasonal food items to house cleaning, many of the daily life necessities are obtained through cooperation and neighborly relations, instead of being purchased from the market. Right now, many residents here, especially the older ones, are looking for ways to survive once their safety net—the neighborhood—is removed from beneath their feet.

“Uncertainty” was the only concept that appeared constantly in every conversation and interview throughout my fourteen-month-long field study. I observed how people, in despair, surrendered themselves to a world of uncertainty with the mantra of “tomorrow will take care of itself” whenever the urban redevelopment project came into question. Urban redevelopment in Turkey is a cycle through which uncertainty feeds speculation and speculation feeds profits. Whether we want it or not, everyone in Turkish society is lured into the process, where every home turns into real estate, and every street and every neighborhood turns into parcels for investment. The process destroys more than it creates, and ruins the social-economic fabric that has been woven over many years in one blow. The story of Fikirtepe is the story of what is lost when chasing profit, the story of impoverishment when dreaming about becoming rich. It is the other side of the story, the less spoken reality of urban redevelopment in Turkey.

NOTES

[1] I have translated “rant” as profit. The word is derived from rent and means unearned income. However, there is no exact translation, so I stick with “profit.”

[2] Bagdat Avenue is a wealthy neighborhood in the Kadikoy district of Istanbul; Fikirtepe is located very close to Bagdat Avenue. Some residents in Fikirtepe suspect that a so-called “Bagdat Avenue Lobby” is working to undermine the Fikirtepe project to prevent the neighborhood from becoming more valuable. They argue that once the Fikirtepe project is completed, Bagdat Avenue would lose its value against Fikirtepe.

[3] Gecekondu, which literally means “built overnight,” is the term used to describe informal, squatter housing in Turkey. Usually gecekondu houses are built on either treasury or endowment lands on the outskirts of the city, by immigrants coming from rural areas. Most gecekondu owners do not own official title deeds, but rather title allocation documents. Fikirtepe in this regard is different from other gecekondu areas, since the residents here own official land titles, instead of allocation documents.

[An earlier version of this article was first published in Turkish on Jadaliyya; it can be found here. It was translated by the author.]

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